There are some films that you just know you’re going to like even before they begin. The Departed was one of those for me.
How could it not be good? Directed by Martin Scorsese. Big names like Matt Damon, Leonardo Di Caprio, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen.
Even Mark Wahlberg was supposed to be good in it.
And so it proved. The plot can sound a lot more complicated than it really is. It’s cops, led by Sheen, versus gangsters, led by Nicholson. Each side has a mole in the other camp, Di Caprio the cop turned mobster and Damon the opposite. And each mole is trying to identify their rival mole, in order to protect their own cover.
It’s a black and white tale really. Di Caprio has spent so long on the wrong side of the law that it’s beginning to eat him up. You can see in every scene how passionately he wants to draw a line underneath his undercover days, go back to a normal life. All he has to do is deliver Nicholson. Meanwhile, Damon, for want of a better phrase, is a sneaky piece of shit. I couldn’t help taking an immediate dislike to his character.
One thing that does take a bit of getting used to is the Boston accent on show. Before this film I had no idea there was such a thing, and it can take a minute or two to tune your ear to it. But it’s almost a character in itself and really adds to the pace and the rhythm of the dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, Wahlberg’s performance is one for the ages. It’s not just the foul content of his lines, but the venom with which he spits them out (and no, that’s not a reference to his hip hop days as Marky Mark).
It’s not Scorsese’s greatest film, by any stretch, and you’ll never hear a worse Irish accent than that attempted by Ray Winstone. But it’s a fantastic way to spend two and a half hours
Or at least, that’s what I thought before this week, when I sat down to watch Infernal Affairs on Netflix.
Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong film from 2002, and was the ‘inspiration’ for the Departed. It’s basically the same story, but in Cantonese. And it is out-of-this-world brilliant.
For starters, there’s the sheer speed at which the story rattles along. The Departed’s running time is 151 minutes. Infernal Affairs gets the job done in 101 minutes, the best part of an hour less. There’s no dawdling about, it gets on with it and sucks you in immediately. The placing of the respective moles is over within a matter of minutes, before we even see the title of the film.
I thought that Di Caprio’s performance was the very embodiment of quiet desperation, an undercover cop on the edge. I was wrong – Tony Leung is on a different planet. It’s a heart-breaking display, a guy watching, absorbing everything, in the hope that he can take down the top Triad – Sam, played by Eric Tsang – and get back to a life he knew before.
Any time his secret identity was at risk of being exposed, my heart was in my throat, pounding, even though thanks to the Departed I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen.
Tsang is another who puts his American successor in the shade. Nicholson is smarmy and charming, but I never really bought him as a ruthless gangster. Tsang on the other hand oozes charisma and quiet menace. His eyes were utterly chilling.
And what of the Triad’s man inside the police, Inspector Lau (Andy Lau)? It’s a very different performance to Matt Damon’s. Here is a man fighting himself – and his Triad leaders – to find out who he really is, whether he wants to be defined by his relationship with the Triads or move beyond it. I found him a far more sympathetic character, one who is aware that his mistakes have caused the deaths of good people and who feels genuine remorse for that.
There isn’t the clumsy love triangle that the Departed attempts, and the film is all the better for it.
According to IMDB, the Departed is the 52nd best film ever made, with an average rating of 8.5, compared to Infernal Affairs’ rating of 8, leaving it in 210th place. If everybody who rated the Departed were made to watch Infernal Affairs, I fully expect that positioning would be switched.
Great films stay with you long after the credits have ended. I enjoyed the Departed, but once it was over, I didn’t think about it (beyond the odd delayed chuckle at a Wahlberg line). In the 24 hours since I finished Infernal Affairs, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I implore you to watch it. You won’t regret it.
John Fitzsimons is the editor of personal finance website lovemoney.com and writes about things other than money to keep him sane. His wife still hasn’t forgiven him for subjecting her to Green Street simply for the chance to hear Frodo sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”.