When I first caught Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning 2006 film in the theaters, it was hard to separate it from the original story. Infernal Affairs is a brisk Hong Kong crime movie that includes double agents, exciting action, and big surprises. The remake runs 50 minutes longer and expands the characters, particularly the kingpin played by Jack Nicholson. It's a well-made, ambitious movie that does a lot more than recreate the source material. This isn't Jon Badham doing a nearly identical remake of La Femme Nikita with Point of No Return. Scorsese uses some of the best moments but sets the story in Boston, which changes the tone completely. The environment becomes a character in a world that's even more ruthless than Hong Kong.
Eloquent writers have stated their case for which version is the greater achievement. It's a silly discussion because it depends on your interests. Viewers looking for a tight crime movie with little baggage will probably prefer the original. On the other hand, Scorsese's remake offers more energetic performances and greater directorial flourishes. Infernal Affairs does not include sequences of tough guys busting heads with the Dropkick Murphys blaring in the background. Of course, you could make the argument that Scorsese goes too far and should have tightened the middle act. Are these scenes essential, or are they present because he can't help himself? He pulls out every trick that he knows for this show-stopping epic, and most of them succeed. It helps to have Nicholson, Ray Winstone, Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, and others to sell the material. Even the infamous rat appearance at the end doesn't feel as hokey as it should be.
The Departed begins with a captivating monologue from Nicholson's Frank Costello, a powerful crime boss in the Irish mafia. When he's introduced to us and young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), he's at the height of his power and struts down the streets like he owns the town. Nicholson is perfect for this role and reminds us why he became such a superstar. This isn't the same feeling we get watching The Bucket List or Something's Gotta Give. When we arrive in the present, Costello remains formidable, but the constant pursuit by law enforcement has changed him. He's extremely suspicious of everyone, including his employees. He has a right to be scared, especially since one of his underlings is a cop. Leonardo Dicaprio is excellent as Billy Costigan, who's tormented by having to live a double life. He also stands up to Nicholson, which is no easy task in this film. This level of talent gives Scorsese everything he needs to deliver a gripping movie.
The first hour offers a master class on how to provide in-depth exposition without boring the audience. Scorsese and Writer William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) provide such a thrilling rush that it's easy to miss how well they're building this world. We meet a lot of characters with their own agendas, but it's rarely confusing. Costigan's handlers include the good cop Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the bad cop Dignan (Mark Wahlberg), who use different methods to keep him on board. Sullivan works officially for Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) on his task force, but he's truly protecting Costello. Both Costigan and Sullivan are great at what they do, but it's almost impossible to keep everything in line. It's only a matter of time before something slips and pushes them on a collision course with an inevitable end.
On a repeat viewing, the issues arise during the second act, which raises the suspense but moves too slowly. Sullivan and Costigan both form relationships with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), the police psychiatrist. Farmiga does a nice job in an underwritten role that's too dependent on the other characters' actions. Even so, I can't say that Madolyn is the main issue. There's no single plot point that creates a major problem. Instead, I wonder if there just isn't enough to warrant such an extended running time. It doesn't ruin the movie and still provides solid entertainment, but it doesn't live up to the first hour's pace. The most likely explanation is that it isn't possible to maintain that energy. There has to be some respite before we shift into the cat-and-mouse thrills of the final segment.
Any concerns with the middle sections disappears when the final act shifts into gear. There's a brilliant sequence where Costigan and Sullivan end up connecting on a cell phone. Each guy listens to the other breathe but says nothing. After a few close calls, they both put their chips on the table for one final showdown. Following the path of the original, this isn't going to be a happy ending. Costigan might think he's covered all the bases, but he doesn't count on Costello's contingency plans. Nicholson reveals the unraveling confidence of a gangster who seemed impervious to doubt early in the movie. When even his own guy is ready to throw him under the bus, you know his reign is heading towards its end. The final 30 minutes is gripping and rarely lets up until the shocking finish. It isn't Scorsese's best film, but The Departed reminds us that he hasn't lost his ability to surprise us.