UNpopular Opinion: The Departed
Written by: Felix Vasquez Jr.
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
Wai-keung Lau, and Alan Mak 2002 crime thriller entitled "Infernal Affairs" is one of the most unique and richly complex films about identity and the job that demands the loss of one in the face of bringing down crime all around it. By the time "Infernal Affairs" has ended, it's not only finished with a climax that shows that the line between good and evil is completely unfocused, but that the character whose search for identity lives with him throughout the premise of the film that consistently eludes him, is found with death. And by the time the villain has destroyed his nemesis, his identity still lingers. "Infernal Affairs" is a film that delves in to karma, fate, and what we define as a true identity in a world filled with thinning lines of morality.
"The Departed" has none of those rich themes. In fact it's so void of the sheer complexity of the rich irony and tapestry of emotions the original heralded that it's much more in line with a straight to DVD thriller than an Oscar Worthy attempt by Martin Scorsese. Oh, I'm not the first to have said this about the 2008's "The Departed."
But sadly, I'm one of the few. And I'm okay with that. Because sitting down to watch "The Departed" was akin to watching an under performing child given a pat on the back thanks to expectations and not so much what they delivered to you at the end of the day. The best way to sum up "The Departed" is as a clumsy and oafish crime thriller bereft of the usual devices the original film strived in bringing to the crime genre, and is so easily picked at that even "The Simpsons" had an easy time satirizing it. A past its prime television show from the nineties so easily destroyed the base of the film's entire premise it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
I can still fondly recall Ralph Wiggum looking at the rat on the window sill muttering "The rat symbolizes obviousness!"
And all I could think was "Yes! Finally someone mocks that scene."
Because at the end of the day that's all "The Departed" was for most people. It was an obvious thriller with obvious takes on morality that was granted a free ride thanks to the inability of its director to create something original that could garner him an Oscar win. And I'm glad he won, I'm happy for him, I just sit here wondering why "The Departed" is still considered such a stellar film. People even mocked him to some degree when he won that the only way he could win the Academy's favor was to remake another movie that's still vastly superior.
Many have even insisted it being Scorsese's supreme masterpiece, even over the likes of "Taxi Driver" and or "Goodfellas." Seriously? "Taxi Driver"? The ultimate crime drama is a remake that completely watered down the premise of its original creation and even sullied much of its competent takes on karma and fate that made the original film so much more than a formula crime thriller and held it in to a place in the genre that was spiritual even if reality based. Almost like "Rashomon" in a sense, where one story was never enough to grasp the severity of this story.
The first indication that this film is merely nothing but a watered down successor is that Scorsese immediately does away with the plaster cast plot device and opts instead for modern convenience. In the original film, Inspector Lau Kin Ming had a plaster cast because this allowed him to communicate with authorities outside of the base where the gangs would meet up. The plaster cast served as a shield that allowed him to tap his finger along the window sill communicating in Morse code to his contacts that could then signal in on when and where the gangs were meeting.
Instead, in a swift move, Scorsese destroys the intelligent device behind that that could influence a new take on American crime dramas and instead just uses the cast as a character piece and outright clumsy prop that slowed down the character Billy in his efforts to solve this all consuming case, and rather than using the cast to his advantage, he simply communicated through a cell phone with numbers and symbols. Wow, I've never seen that before.
Beyond that nagging bit of watered down hokum, Scorsese seems less inclined to guide his film in to crime thriller legendary status and instead just lets his cast lead him, it's clearly the sign of a director who holds no grasp of what character motivations can lead the story in to its sink hole of chaos and carnage by the final half that completely dizzies the audience in to submission.
Can anyone really tell me that Jack Nicholson was anyone but Jack Nicholson in his role as mob boss Frank Costello? Scorsese seemed to inclined to allow Nicholson carte blanche on screen giving him the opportunity to just be Jack Nicholson. Did we really see anything new or unique with Frank Costello that we haven't seen in "The Shining" or "Batman" or even "As Good as It Gets"? There are moments of sheer absurdity and absolute baffling improv throughout Nicholson's time on-screen that left me thinking "They must have thought that would have been a genius move on-screen." Take for example the moment where Costello leans in for a cigarette and shushes right hand man Ray Winstone with a grin.
What is the point of that? Why did it have to be included? There are times throughout the movie where I wondered as to why there was such a necessary inclusion and why Scorsese felt he had to water down and dumb down the material to hold our hands throughout most of the story of "The Departed." Take for example the CGI rat in the final scene of "The Departed." Sure, if you like clumsy hand on the nose symbolism, the rat is a fine finisher, but as it stands it's clearly the mark of a director and or studio who had no faith in its final product and audiences intelligence enough to warrant a sharp bit of subtle symbolism that didn't clumsily lay a rat on the window sill and say "See? Because Damon is the rat! Or is Wahlberg the rat? Think about that!"
Are the performances good? Sure. Are they Oscar worthy? Not at all. And I insist with the utmost zeal that there isn't a single Oscar worthy performance in the bunch, including Mark Wahlberg who scored a nomination for playing Wahlberg. And that's all he was at the end of the day, even with his interaction with the final dunderheaded half of "The Departed" that completely did away with all of the closing scenes of the original film leaving the audience to think about who among these individuals have won the war, and who among them is still imprisoned, and just tacks on a moment where Sgt. Dignam wreaks pure revenge on Colin Sullivan.
Because god forbid we should leave on a thought provoking finale, right? We have to end on a stylish revenge sequence or else the audience may not grasp what you're going for. Or maybe Scorsese just plays the American audience for saps and thinks by now he has to spell everything out as opposed to the days where "Taxi Driver" told a story without explaining every single beat to us to keep us calm and collected at night.
"The Departed" is not a masterpiece, not by any definition of the word. And while it is a watchable bit of crime thriller fare with competent performances, its purpose is like every other remake in the last ten years. To take the unique premise from Hong Kong that was like a hard drink on a cold night, and just water and dumb it down as much as possible to make the ride more easier to follow and simpler for a movie going mass that appreciates being led by the hand.