For those who haven't seen Infernal Affairs the film on which The Departed is based - the plot revolves around two men. An undercover cop, infiltrating a mob gang in Boston (DiCaprio) and an undercover mobster (Damon), who has infiltrated the police force at the arrangement of the appallingly psychotic Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).
Frenetic action ensues as the two warring tribes tear each other apart in order to find their respective moles. Meanwhile, both undercover men are struggling with their identity. But which one will crack first? Taking aside the remake issue for a moment, does the film work on its own terms? Partially. The story is excellent and involving, and while it is a long film at nearly 2hours 30min, it keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. The characters are very well drawn, and there is clear movement in both characters, which helps to engage the audience. Leonardo DiCaprio is truly excellent as Billy Costigan, the mole for the Boston Police Department; and a special mention must also go to Mark Wahlberg, who manages to steal just about every scene he's in.
However, despite these notable strengths, I completely failed to leave the cinema feeling wowed. Entertained, with out a doubt, but this is a long way from being Scorsese's best work.
Part of the problem is the juxtaposition of violence and humour. While being an excellent director in almost every respect, Scorsese is no Tarantino when it comes to violence and humour. The humour worked fine on its own terms (Wahlberg, in particular, was hilarious) but it was used in a clunky way, and disrupted the mood and the pace of the film.
Another problem was Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello. Jack is unleashed in The Departed and not in a good way. He seems to think he's playing The Joker again. I'm not quite sure what either Nicholson or Scorsese though they were doing with all those rat imitations. In these circumstances, the insanity of the mobster would normally intimidate the other characters and the audience (c.f. Mr Blonde in The Reservoir Dogs). Here, either the chemistry between Leo and Jack was wrong; or the scene was badly written or performed (I suspect the later). It just didn't work.
So to the remake issue. In many respects, The Departed is a photographic negative of Infernal Affairs, which suffered from poor characterisation, but had spectacularly slick plotting, and a coherent tone.
It would be wrong to expect a remake to mimic the style of the original. But in this case, where style and substance are so inextricably fused in the original, it can be dangerous to mess with it.
Unfortunately, Infernal Affairs had Michael Mann written all over it. It needed a highly stylised treatment and, dare I say it, California. Something just doesn't ring true in The Departed. It was a good film, but something was just wrong.