This week’s film is a rare occasion where the remake has won more awards, been on more Best Film lists and has received more overall acclaim than the original. That’s quite an impressive feat when you consider how good the original film was. Infernal Affairs (2002) is a great film from Hong Kong that won a whole cluster of cinematic honors internationally and is at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s 2006 American remake, the Departed, seems to get onto even more “Top 10” lists and also won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards. It has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 86% on Metacritic.
The original Hong Kong film, which was the first film of a trilogy, was done on a modest budget which translates to about $8 million American dollars, whereas the remake was filmed for a more substantial $90 million. While the remake’s bigger budget gives it a grander feel, the remake manages to capture a more arthouse style, and also evokes some of the classic Hollywood gangster films. Two directors collaborated on this version; Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, who also write the script.
The plot of the original 2002 Hong Kong version: Chen Wing Yan (Tony Leung), is a young cop who is recruited by Superintendent Wong (Wong Chi Shing) straight out of the academy to go undercover and infiltrate the Chinese mafia, in order to get close to Triad boss Hon Sam and bring him down. However, Hon Sam has slipped his own mole into the Hong Kong police. Inspector Lau King Ming (Andy Lau) is a rising star on the force but no one suspects he is a spy for the Triad. Both moles have to ingratiate themselves to their respective sides, gather information and keep from being discovered. This secret double-life takes an emotional toll on both men. Over the course of ten years, Yan undergoes extreme stress from embedding himself in this violent underworld, and starts to lose faith in himself as a cop after being a gangster for a decade; Meanwhile Lau rises through the ranks of the police, becoming the golden boy of the department. He slowly becomes accustomed to life as a police officer and starts to rethink his criminal background.
The only one who knows that Yan is really a plant and not a gangster is Superintendent Wong. However, while meeting secretly with Yan, tragedy strikes him. Lau informs his boss Sam Hon that Wong is meeting with the mole, so Sam Hon sends hitmen to kill them both. Chief Wong sacrifices himself to let Yan escape, getting thrown off a roof for his nobility. Lau, who takes over the department after Wong is killed, gets access to Wong’s cell phone and contacts Yan. Never seeing each other, they agree to foil a big drug deal by Hon. Their plan works and Sam Hon’s gang is captured but Sam Hon escapes, only to die when Lau betrays Hon and shoots him down. Both men are relieved. Yan can get away from this horrid undercover life and become a cop again. Lau has completely erased his criminal history by eliminating Hon’s triad gang. Soon, however, Yan learns that Lau was the mole all along. Lau realizes he’s been found out so he erases any information from Yan’s file in the police database that prove Yan was undercover, and not really a criminal. In the finale, Yan confronts Lau on the same rooftop that Wong was killed and holds him a gunpoint, when Wong’s ex-assistant Lt. “B” arrives and surprisingly shoots Yan. He reveals to Lau that he is also a mole for Sam Hon. Lau repays him by killing “B” to keep his years as a mole secret. Lau succeeds in keeping his past hidden and becomes the new Captain of the department. (The story is continued in the sequel Infernal Affairs 2.)
The plots of both of these films are very similar but the remake add some significant changes that make it individual enough to be entertaining in its own rite, rather than being just a copy of a better film. Directed by one of the all-time great directors, Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, the King of Comedy, the Color of Money, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of NY, the Aviator) the remake adds in some new details that were glossed over in the 2002 Hong Kong film. This creates more complexity in the remake.
The plot of the remake: Boston police rookie, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is recruited by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his sidekick Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to go undercover to infiltrate the powerful and dangerous Irish mob of Boston, which is led by the notorious Frank Costello (Played by the legendary Jack Nicholson). The Boston PD is unaware the Costello has beaten them to the punch by implanting his own mole on the force, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a promising up-and-comer in the department. Both men spend months working their way into the good graces of their respective sides (the mob and Boston PD.) Costigan has to compromise his ethics to impress Costello while Sullivan charms and manipulates the cops to become a star in the department. Costigan gets worried when Costello starts to believe there is a “cheese eating rat” in his organization. Meanwhile, Sullivan is assigned by Queenan to find the mole on the police force (which is himself) while Costello wants him to find out who the cops sent to infiltrate the Irish mob.
Sullivan begins a romance with psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Famiga) who he soon moves in with. Madden, however, is treating Costigan, who is visiting her as part of his cover as a recovering drug addict and criminal. Madolyn becomes attracted to Costigan and a love triangle soon ensues. (Unknown to Sullivan.)
Sullivan, still trying to find the undercover man in the mob, has Queenan tailed to a secret meeting with Costigan on a rooftop. Costello sends his men to eliminate them both. Queenan orders Costigan to flee while he confronts Costello’s men alone. The gangsters throw Queenan off the building to his death. Sullivan takes over the precinct (Dignam goes on leave rather than work for Sullivan because he suspects Sullivan is the mole.)
Using Queenan’s phone, Sullivan contacts Costigan, who refuses to abort his mission. Sullivan is alarmed when he finds out from Queenan’s files that Costello was an FBI informant. This makes Sullivan worry about his own identity being discovered. With Costigan’s help, Costello is traced to a big cocaine sale, where a gunfight between the cops and the mob breaks out. Most of the Irish mobsters are killed. Sullivan arrives and shoots Costello repeatedly, killing him. With Costello dead, Sullivan is safe and gets all the credit. Costigan, thinking his time as an undercover man is finally over, comes to Sullivan to restore his true identity and erase his criminal record, but he finally discovers Sullivan is the mob mole. When Sullivan suspects that Costigan knows his secret, he erases Costigan’s records from the police computer system, leaving him officially a criminal.
As in the original, the story is resolved in a dramatic rooftop confrontation. Costigan has handcuffed Sullivan and holds him at gunpoint. A police officer arrives and abruptly shoots Costigan in the head, revealing that he was also working for Costello. Sullivan kills the officer to protect his secret. He frames a dead officer as the mole and gets the Medal of Merit. However, when he returns to his apartment, he is killed by a vengeful Dignam.
As you can see, the two films are very much alike in many ways but the differences are significant. The American remake is far grittier. Not only is the violence much more graphic and bloody, and the language more profanely colorful, but it also makes Boston look physically dirtier. Scorsese finds the most run-down locations in Boston to give his film a more grimey urban look. The Hong Kong film makes the city look more slick and metropolitan. One nicely artistic bit of visual storytelling that the original version offers is the religious imagery, such as the Buddhist temple and the statues. One particularly memorable statue is the ‘long armed statue’, which foreshadows the fates of the characters, indicating that no one can escape the hand of fate. The original also uses music to better effect.
As for the cast, both films are filled with fine actors who give strong performances. Andy Lau gives a better performance than Matt Damon as the villain’s mole. Damon is a little too likeable, whereas Lau does a better job portraying the shifting and divided loyalty of the character. On the other hand, DiCaprio gives a stronger performance as the cop’s mole. DiCaprio is always excellent at relaying a character’s inner turmoil. Tony Leung’s version is well done but slightly more stoic. DiCaprio more accurately embodies a man in torment. Walberg’s character Srg. Digman was a minor character in original but expanded for comedy relief (his constant cursing gets some laughs) and to provide a different ending than the original. Stealing the show is the great Jack Nicholson, returning to a villain role after a long stretch (The last time he played a bad guy before this was as the Joker in Batman in 1989.) While Eric Tsang was evil and imposing as the Infernal Affairs bad guy, he just couldn’t match Nicholson at his nasty best.
One flaw in the remake is that the ending is a bit too abrupt. Since the original Hong Kong version was only Part One of a trilogy, it left things a bit open ended and wasn’t forced to wrap everything up by the closing credits. The final scene of the remake is more of a clichéd Hollywood style ending where the villain is killed and then the credits roll. Having Mark Wahlberg’s Dignam reappear at the end just to wrap up the last plot thread does a disservice to the audience by simplifying things, and tying it up so conveniently. Also, the climactic rooftop finale works better in the original because there is no Dignam, so no one else knows that Lau (the good mole) is really a cop, so only his enemy can clear his name.
So which one is better? This is a hard choice because they’re both so good. The remake is more complex but the original is more stylish. It’s very close. However, after much consideration, the edge goes to the remake. For one thing, the love triangle that the remake added to the plot adds more emotion and complexity to the story, and also increases the role of the female psychiatrist character. In Infernal Affairs, only the good mole (Leung) is involved with the therapist, played in that version by Sammi Cheng. In the remake, Vera Famiga’s Madalyn character adds a new element to the plot. Also, the relationship between the villain Costello and undercover Costigan is done much better and given more time in the remake than the scenes with Lau and Hon Sam in the original. Therefore, The Departed wins by a narrow margin but both are terrific films and worth watching if you havn’t seen them.
So that’s all for this week’s look at cinematic remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect another remade movie. In the meantime, you can look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.