Friday, February 23, 2007

Ray Winstone & Leonardo Di Caprio

Try and look at The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s masterful crime drama that’s up for the Best Picture Oscar this year – and which just might really be the best picture nominated – from the perspective of Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak, the directors of Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong-based thriller on which Scorsese’s Boston drama is based. Infernal Affairs largely is patterned, lovingly so, after the work of Martin Scorsese & Quentin Taratino (never mind that Taratino himself has based his career on Scorsese). So the master comes along and pays you the ultimate compliment of making an adaptation of your film, adds 50 minutes to the length of it but comes out with something that feels far less padded than Infernal Affairs & clearly one of the three best films of Scorsese’s fabled career – other two being Mean Streets & take your pick from Taxi Driver, Raging Bull & Goodfellas. My pick would be Raging Bull, but it’s worth noting just how much The Sopranos has been living off Goodfellas, even its cast, for years. Taxi Driver might not be the paradigm shifter that Mean Streets was, but it’s probably the one where most people actually noticed the shift. “You talkin’ to me?” is still one of the iconic film sentences of all time. In The Departed, the master shows just how it’s done and it’s breath-taking just how well he does it. Having seen Infernal Affairs first only reinforces the difference, and Infernal Affairs is actually a pretty good movie.

What surprised me most when I finally got to see The Departed this past week was its tautness – compared with Infernal Affairs, it’s a master class on how pacing, editing & the presence of the right score (Scorsese’s with its almost gentle Rolling Stones undertones is by Lord of the Rings veteran Howard Shore) are what make a film tight, not length. The film also showcases the best acting Jack Nicholson has done in at least a decade & the best Leonardo Di Caprio has done since, say, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (for which Di Caprio rightfully was nominated for an Oscar). Di Caprio comes across as a completely different human being in this film, something Matt Damon couldn’t do if his life depended on it (Damon’s a decent enough thespian, tho with limited range), and something Nicholson hasn’t tried since Five Easy Pieces. The one Oscar nod for acting to come out of this film, for Mark Wahlberg’s good cop with a bad mouth, is bizarre given the degree to which Di Caprio & Nicholson offer master classes here. Marky Mark hardly has more to do in this film than his brother Robert, who plays an FBI agent. Also excellent in smaller roles are Vera Farmiga, as the police psychologist who always falls for the wrong guys, and British actor Ray Winstone, as one of Nicholson’s goons, Mr. French.

The plot of the two movies is identical. Street kid gets noticed by local mob boss & sent to the police academy in order to give the boss a pair of ears on the inside; second police cadet gets picked for a deep undercover assignment & accordingly gets drummed out of the academy, given a rap sheet, and told to fend for himself as he infiltrates the mob boss’ organization. At which point both the undercover cop and the “rat” inside the police department spend much time trying to figure out just who the other one is, while also not getting caught themselves. The architecture of the plot, originally written by Siu with Felix Chong, is marvelously crafted & dazzlingly complex. It’s certainly conceivable that I found Scorsese’s telling “cleaner” because I’d already seen Infernal Affairs, but I don’t really think so. One of the layers of difficulty that Scorsese has added is the physical similarities of Di Caprio and Damon, which could (and I think this is intentional on the director’s part) confuse even fans of the two, especially during the first half hour of the film. That’s not in the Hong Kong film. Another is the presence of Boston accents all around. I felt, as I often do, say, when watching Shakespeare, that I could have used subtitles for the first ten or so minutes as my ears adjusted.

Scorsese has been one of America’s top directors now for over thirty years, which means that there are by now at least two additional generations of directors who’ve grown up admiring and imitating his work, Tarantino foremost among them. Thanks especially to the original script, this is Scorsese’s most Tarantino-esque film, with an ending that comes right out of Pulp Fiction. There are several important scenes in which Scorsese’s adeptness is put on high display. There is one key scene, fairly late in the film, in which one of the gangsters figures out, right at the point he’s dying, that Di Caprio is the undercover cop. In Infernal Affairs, this is played out around an auto accident, but Scorsese ups the stakes by setting the scene in a warehouse where Costello’s gang has gone after a bloody shoot-out with the police. With the other gangsters literally in the background Di Caprio has to convey the tension of the scene entirely in his eyes, the corners of his mouth & in a consciously restricted use of body language and does so brilliantly. When I saw Internal Affairs, I actually had to replay that scene to make sure that it meant what I thought it meant.

Indeed, there are very few scenes in Internal Affairs that are notably better than The Departed. The first (and perhaps most important) is the scene on the roof where the two protagonists finally confront one another – it’s a scene that, in Infernal Affairs, owes more to movies like Die Hard and Dirty Harry than it does to Scorsese, and Scorsese downplays the vista right where Infernal Affairs made it a major part of the scene. A second, perhaps for the same reasons, is the fall of the police official who has been running the undercover operation inside the gang. There is also an important difference in the set up to the funeral scene, as to just who decided to recommend the deceased for honors. Scorsese’s solution underscores the sliminess of a key character, where Infernal Affairs accentuated the role of the romance. I actually prefer Scorsese’s approach here, tho I think you could make an argument for either one.

The Departed is a more complex, more compelling film than either Babel or The Queen, even if it lacks the social importance of the former or the challenge of making a film where so little happens on the surface of things. Little Miss Sunshine is an American comedy, a genre I readily admit to despising. I found it better than, say, My Name is Earl, the best of the comedies on TV, but that’s not saying very much. And I haven’t seen either of Clint Eastwood’s two war films, tho I expect that eventually I shall. So when the Oscars are passed out next week, The Departed will be my dog in that hunt. And as for best director? Well, Scorsese has been that now pretty much for 35 years or so, even with his worst costume dramas. But a process which can give a “Best Picture” Oscar to the likes of Rocky, Out of Africa, Shakespeare in Love or Chicago obviously should not be trusted. Giving a statuette to Martin Scorsese will honor the Oscars far more than it will Scorsese.