Hollywood has been trying to get a handle on Hong Kong moviemaking for more than a decade now, ever since Americans figured out our action heroes were holding their guns wrong. Instead of the old straight-up-and-down—in one hand, like a cowboy, or in the two-fisted isosceles tactical grip of Miami Vice—there was someone like Chow Yun-Fat with his pistol hand rotated nearly 90 degrees inward, forearm and wrist flat and on top of the weapon, like a boxer throwing a hard overhand punch. The gun was friggin’ sideways.
So American actors started rolling their wrists like Chow Yun-Fat. They dived sideways for cover like Chow Yun-Fat, a huge automatic blazing in each fist, or hurled themselves backward through plate-glass windows, blasting away, like Chow Yun-Fat.
What else would it take? Hollywood brought in John Woo, Mr. Chow’s signature director, to amp up stateside action movies. It imported fight choreographers and stunt coordinators and flying-wire kung-fu technology. It brought in Jackie Chan and Jet Li and even Chow Yun-Fat himself.
It wasn’t enough. Chow Yun-Fat’s Hong Kong movies were cool, in a way that made a couple of decades’ worth of American action heroes retroactively look like douche bags. Bruce Willis? Douche bag. Steven Seagal? Douche bag. Sylvester Stallone? Douche. Bag. Chow Yun-Fat was cool like Steve McQueen used to be, and Steve McQueen has been dead for a long time.
Hong Kong cinema—whether kung-fu comedy, hyperbolic thriller or film-artistic meditation—is movie-star cinema. It’s not a matter of celebrity branding (“Kevin COSTNER … Ashton KUTCHER”) or even actor promotion (“Sean Penn Is Electrifying”). Hong Kong movies are built around the stars’ screen presence, the mixture of image and acting particular to each.
In Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs, the dull waters of Boston Harbor take the place of the spectacular Victoria Harbor; the barren avenues of South Boston fill in for the glittering, seedy roads of Kowloon. Boston, unsurprisingly, makes a rinky-dink substitute for Hong Kong. The new movie is forced to use an abandoned six-story building where the original had an occupied 23-story tower.
How did America get so small? Infernal Affairs, a brooding and intricate cops-and-mobsters thriller, set box-office records on its home soil and swept the Hong Kong movie awards. It quickly added a prequel and sequel, expanding into a multigenerational crime trilogy—The Godfather of Hong Kong cinema. That’s not quite the same as being The Godfather, but we haven’t been making The Godfather over here lately either.
The plot of Infernal Affairs is clever, but basically a mechanical puzzle. The habitual dualism of Hong Kong action movies—the cop and the killer are always two sides of the same thing—gets a structural workout: There’s a police spy in the mob, and there’s a mob spy in the police force, and through layers of symmetrical story development, each one is trying to catch the other while pretending to try to catch himself.
The depth and symbolic weight come from the casting. The undercover cop is Tony Leung, peerlessly suave in other films, now jittery and withdrawn under the strain of his hoodlum pose. The mob spy is veteran matinee idol and pop singer Andy Lau, his handsomeness tainted with deliberate self-satisfaction. They are both human figures and larger-than-human ones at the same time.
The script supplies external forces, and the actors supply the internal life. The immaculate Mr. Lau tilts his head to bask in his police colleagues’ applause, secure in his deceptions. A wild-eyed Mr. Leung sees a policeman slain in front of him and lurches backward and forward where he stands, unable to rush to the body without blowing his cover.
Infernal Affairs’ best performance, though, comes from Eric Tsang, as Sam, the crime boss. Mr. Tsang is a stumpy man who has been in nearly 150 movies, often playing characters with names like Fatty, Fat Dragon or Porky Wing. Sam is jovial and raspy-voiced and pitiless, pinning cops and underlings alike with a cold, quizzical glare, then breaking it off in chuckles. When he banters with his police counterpart—the provocatively unflappable Anthony Wong—the fury between them is obvious, even before Sam allows a flash of visible anger.
In the American version, Sam is named Frank Costello, and he is played by Jack Nicholson. This had the potential to be a sorry development, especially when word circulated in the press that Mr. Nicholson had scripted himself an extra scene with two hookers and a strap-on dildo.
It’s true that Mr. Nicholson is a movie star. And Mr. Scorsese has something of a brilliant touch with movie stars. But what Mr. Scorsese has not necessarily been good with is movies.
This belief puts me in a minority faction of American moviegoers, but it’s a faction with strong convictions. It’s not clear to me that Mr. Scorsese always understands what a movie is—that it is a whole object, with unified emotional and narrative logic. He can direct a pulse-pounding scene, lush with detail and unbearably tense. Yet the next scene doesn’t necessarily follow, and 10 scenes later, the whole project may have meandered off somewhere completely unrelated. The director’s attention is trapped in the foreground, fixed on the close detail in a way that seems genuinely autistic: as if the larger world of the film—i.e., the film—is too much to comprehend.
Gangs of New York was an obvious case (those cannonballs? Huh?), but I can get the same not-quite-there feeling from even the canonized films. When I think of Goodfellas, I remember a man meticulously slicing garlic, and after that I remember 40 minutes of being confused as to whether the end credits were about to start rolling yet.
This shapelessness allows the actors to stretch out too far sometimes. That’s how you get Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, doing everything short of crawling through the screen and swinging from the theater proscenium by his teeth. Great fun, but what was he doing in the movie again?
Yet Mr. Nicholson’s dildo-assisted hooker interlude disappeared in the cutting room before The Departed made it to screenings. Frank Costello is a little speechy, and I could have done without his snuffling imitation of a rat, but he fits into the movie. And so do Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon and Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg—enough above-the-title talent to swamp another movie, an Ocean’s 12 level of casting. Here, they fit together.
Martin Scorsese, it turns out, is a great Hong Kong movie director. In the production notes, the director insists that The Departed is not a remake of Infernal Affairs. That is plainly untrue: The plotting is almost identical, point for point. Gunshots arrive not only in the same place in the story, but generally in the same place in a character’s anatomy. Mr. Scorsese adds an extra splat or two of blood. Mr. DiCaprio appears to have borrowed Mr. Leung’s thin black leather jacket, his thin mustache and his thin beard all at once.
But by drawing so much on Infernal Affairs, Mr. Scorsese has freed himself to make a strikingly different movie—an American movie, maybe a great one. The Departed is hot-blooded, throbbing with rock music and ethnic rage and scabrous dialogue (written by William Monahan) where Infernal Affairs is cold.
Boston is not the towering dream world of Hong Kong; it’s small and cramped, and South Boston, where the mobsters operate, is even smaller. Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Monahan have drawn inspiration from the squalid exploits of Southie gangster Whitey Bulger, who didn’t so much infiltrate law enforcement as corrupt it out of existence. Even the ostensibly uncorrupted police—Mr. Sheen, Mr. Baldwin and a howlingly foul-mouthed Mr. Wahlberg—are plagued by degrees of cynicism, paranoia or a sense of creeping defeat. The exchanges between the actors are packed with black humor and anthropological detail, while above and behind it all, the powerful imported machinery of the script keeps moving.
Mr. Scorsese can’t bring himself to follow the story to its conclusions. Infernal Affairs is a clumsy English rendering of the original movie’s Cantonese title, Mou Gaan Dou. Literally, it means something more like “The Road to Perdition,” except the word for “road” or “path” is also the word that’s made it into English as “Tao”—it is, in the end, a movie about damnation. Mr. Scorsese, after the duplicity, betrayal and murder, wraps things up instead on a note of jaded righteousness. Perhaps his characters have had too rousing a time to settle for Hell. Perhaps they’ve even earned it. In the middle of the movie, a rival law-enforcement officer demands to know who the foul-mouthed Sergeant Dignam, played by Mr. Wahlberg, thinks he is.
“I’m the guy who does his job,” Mr. Wahlberg, the model turned actor, snaps back. “You must be the other guy.”