By Corey Birkhofer
The Departed, USA / Hong Kong, 2006
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Don’t get me wrong. Remakes can work. I actually liked the American remake of Seven Samurai (The Magnificent Seven). Hell, I even enjoyed The Ring and The Grudge remakes after seeing the original Japanese versions of both. But when Martin Scorsese decided to remake Infernal Affairs (2002), one of my favorite more recent Hong Kong films, I have to admit some lines were crossed.
Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s contemplate for a minute why remakes are even made in the first place. If the original was so inspiring, why does it need to be redone? And in one’s remaking of an original work, what do the creators intend to change to make it, in their minds, better? I think this gives a hint as to why films are remade in the first place, but there’s also the question of accessibility and reception. How will the original work be received if the audience has to sit through a film with (gasp!) subtitles? Sadly, the general American moviegoer is definitely not up for a film where they have to sit and read words on the screen. Unfortunately for these viewers, they miss out on a wealth of amazing films. And yet, with these moviegoers being the ones who fill movie seats, they are the judge and jury of what kind of films get greenlit; thus we get foreign films perfectly fine being left the way they are getting remade to be more attuned to American audiences.
That being said, though the original Infernal Affairs was a box office smash hit in China, who was to say it would be as big of a hit when it came to the states? Though Miramax did bring the original Infernal Affairs over for a relatively successful limited release in 2004 (two years after its release in China), I guess Scorsese just couldn’t resist taking a stab at the narrative himself. I remember back in 2004 when I was still reeling from the excitement after seeing the original Infernal Affairs, only to find out Scorsese was planning to make his own American version. With Scorsese at the helm I was actually pretty excited at the time, but flashing forward three years after The Departed came out in 2006, I’m definitely wishing I could go back to a moment in time when this film did not exist.
I’m sure I must sound like some sort of fanboy, pissed off that his precious little film has been mangled by a director who can make any film he wants, but this is only because I think The Departed was a remake not worth remaking. Scorsese, a director whom I have been fond of for as long as I can remember, has always been a master of portraying raw violence in an almost tangible way through film. Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) are three films that I don’t know if he will ever top for me. His realistic portrayal of violence is just as potent in his remake of Infernal Affairs but the problem is he took a story germane to its location (Hong Kong) and tried to cut and paste it into an Irish mob-based Massachusetts setting, to little effect.
Another thing to consider is that elements from Infernal Affairs II (2003) and Infernal Affairs: End Inferno 3 (2003) were put into the script that Scorsese shot, thus making it a sort of mutant remake trying to compress way too much story into one film. This, to me, drew out The Departed, making it way longer than it needed to be to get the point across. I think Andrew Lau, co-director and co-star of Infernal Affairs, put it best in the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily interview. When asked what he thought of the film, Lau responded, “Of course I think the version I made is better, but the Hollywood version is pretty good too. [Scorsese] made the Hollywood version more attuned to American culture.” I think Lau hits the nail on the head. Though you can take a story and attune it to your audience, if the original story is a product of the environment it takes place in, there’s some “Frankensteining” that will have to be done to make it work (i.e., screenwriter William Monahan having to borrow elements from all three Infernal Affairs), thus leaving you with an amalgamated and non-cohesive story. At that point I don’t care if Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are in the film. Again, without a solid story even a killer cast can never save your film.
Looking back though on just how well The Departed was received, grossing nearly $27 million in its opening weekend, not to mention taking home four academy awards including Best Picture and Best Director, I have to accept that my opinions are definitely in the minority. But after finally checking the film out myself three years after all the hype has died down, I couldn’t help but recall how much I liked the original better, and how much I wish certain films were never, ever remade. I know Scorsese definitely feels differently, with The Departed marking the first time he was able to take home an Oscar in his career. When asked why he thought he won, Scorsese remarked: “This is the first movie I’ve done with a plot.” Too bad it wasn’t your own, Martin.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com