*. It may seem odd that I preferred the original version of this story, Infernal Affairs. So let me try to explain.
*. There’s a general sense that Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for this movie as a sort of lifetime achievement award, since up until then he’d never won despite a very distinguished body of work. I think it’s a long way from his best, and I think that’s due in large part to it not being material that’s particularly well suited to his talents.
*. What I mainly mean by that is that Scorsese is not a master of suspense, and Infernal Affairs was a machine made to showcase a number of great suspense sequences. Those sequences are mostly still here, but they don’t have any of the same charge. Scorsese just isn’t interested in tightening the screws on us, and never makes us feel as though DiCaprio’s Billy is in any danger of being caught.
*. Take the scene where his cast comes off. In Infernal Affairs we’re led to believe that the police mole does have a recording device under the cast, and that he’s in real danger. Here the cast is taken off first and then Frank (Jack Nicholson) just proceeds to smash Billy’s already broken arm in a brutal scene that serves no purpose.
*. Despite being a much longer film, some great stuff was lost. Where is the key scene, wonderfully arranged in the original, where the gang boss has a sit-down with the police chief, with their men arranged behind them, and where they both acknowledge they have their own moles? Why drop such a terrific moment? So much could have been done with it.
*. William Monahan also won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Why? What is good about this screenplay that wasn’t borrowed from the original? Meanwhile, nearly every bit of “adaptation” made it worse. It’s fuller, but makes less sense. The bit about Frank being an FBI informer seems to have only been added as a nod to the Whitey Bulger case, and is otherwise a distraction. The relationship between Colin and the psychiatrist is invented and turned into a three-way with Billy, which is only confusing and muddies things further with an odd subtext to the film about Colin perhaps being homosexual. Then there’s the whole business of what the hell Dignam was doing at the end, which is something the screenplay never bothers to explain.
*. Meanwhile, none of the improbabilities from the original are fixed. Does it make sense that Colin would leave that incriminating envelope lying on top of his desk like that? Wouldn’t anyone wonder how he got it? Does it make sense that he would be able to keep calling Frank right from police headquarters, pretending to be talking to his dad?
*. I don’t even like the title. I assume it refers to Billy (though some lines in Delahunt’s death scene that were deleted have him referring to himself in this way), but it doesn’t strike me as very meaningful, as Billy isn’t departed (deceased) until the very end.
*. Another Academy Award went to Thelma Schoonmaker for Best Editing. Again, I had my problems. If editing is the invisible art, the art here was all too visible. And not in that jarring way that Scorsese and other directors of the New Hollywood borrowed from the French, but in ways that suggest a kind of laziness.
*. This mostly expresses itself in little ways, minor continuity errors. But even on a first viewing I flagged a lot of these. If you look around on the Internet you can find long, and I mean very long lists of shots that don’t match up, but here are just a couple I haven’t see mentioned.
*. When Billy goes to visit Madelyn she is seen with her arm up on the doorframe when the camera is facing her. In the next shot, taken over her shoulder, her arm is lowered. Yet no time has elapsed.
*. Just a few minutes later, when Damon is talking to Alec Baldwin on the driving range we see Baldwin with a beer can in his hand. After a very brief cutaway to Damon we cut back to Baldwin, who now has both hands on his driver and the beer can has disappeared.
*. Yes, Scorsese like a lot of edits, and the pace of the edits here is fine and works dramatically. But for there to be so many jarring hiccups is surprising.
*. It’s not an editing error, but how could they have shown Nicholson spitting out a mouthful of red wine and then cut to a shot that shows a pool of clear fluid lying on the tabletop?
*. How on earth do Colin and Frank get left alone for so long in the warehouse, even after their noisy gunfight? Just long enough to play the scene, I guess.
*. Scorsese isn’t sure of female characters, perhaps because he can’t cast them as embodying the masculine codes he’s so interested in (his strong female roles are all solos, there is no female bonding). I couldn’t figure Madelyn out here, she seems to have no chemistry with Damon’s Colin and we’re clearly meant to understand that he’s the wrong guy for her. Yet she is unaware of this despite carrying on an affair with Billy.
*. Jack Nicholson. I just don’t know. I don’t buy him in this part. He’s watchable, but hammy. By now that comes with the package though.
*. I did like Mark Wahlberg’s Dignam, though he also struck me as a finally incomprehensible character. Being a loose cannon is one thing, but this guy doesn’t belong in any kind of organization. Also worth singling out is Ray (Sexy Beast) Winstone as Frenchie. He nicely represents that sense of weariness with the life of violence that I think is one of the best things about this picture. Think of Frank’s admission that he doesn’t really have any purpose behind what he’s doing, or Delahunt’s not giving Billy up, or Colin’s resigned call for Dignam to get it over with at the end.
*. Things get more than a little over-the-top at the end, starting with the pile-up of bodies around the elevator. Again one has the sense of a movie that is trying to just add stuff on, in a way that is ultimately self-defeating. David Denby: “there’s hardly an actor who retains the back of his head, and shock gives way to disbelief and even laughter.” It’s like the end of Hamlet out there.
*. It seems a stretch to me that Colin’s upscale apartment would have a rat crawling around its balcony in broad daylight. I know it’s meant to be symbolic (you’d have to be dead to miss that), but it’s hard to credit.
*. For what it may be worth, here’s Scorsese on that final shot: “it took me a while, we took a while on that shot, ultimately it’s the nature of, well, without giving out the story, it’s what’s in the beginning of the frame and then as the rat is revealed, it’s the image of the statehouse itself, the gold dome, the sense of, for me, a throwback of the old gangster genre films at the end of Scarface, the world is yours. Tony Montana is shot in the street, there’s a shot, a shot of a sign in the movie that says ‘The world is yours,’ I think the end of Little Caesar is the same way, so for me, or the end of White Heat. ‘Mom, on the top of the world,’ well the top of the world to him was that Beacon Hill and in a sense the gold dome of the statehouse was near it, represents that.”
*. Note that Tony Montana is the name of the character in De Palma’s Scarface, not the character from Hawks’s movie that Scorsese is referencing (that is, the one who gets “shot in the street”). In the Hawks version the gangster’s name is Tony Camonte.
*. This is a good movie, but it is too long, with too much extra stuff added to the mix that doesn’t work. The qualities that made Infernal Affairs work are not ones that Scorsese seems particularly interested in, and the whole Boston Irish angle is something he appears uncomfortable with. There are interesting themes being developed — in particular relationships between surrogate fathers and sons, and the operation of an economy of trust — but I can’t help feeling the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Those parts remain pieces that don’t connect.