[This was originally published at MSN Movies in 2006, but MSN has taken down their archives.]
"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it." -- Charlie (voiceover by Martin Scorsese) in "Mean Streets" (1973)
If I do bad things, am I a bad person? Can I be a good person despite the bad things I've done? Can I compensate for the sins I commit in one part of my life by doing good works in another? Is forgiveness possible? Is redemption achievable? Or does it even matter if there's not really anyone, or anything, watching over us and keeping track?
Those are some of the Catholic concerns that have preoccupied filmmaker Martin Scorsese throughout his career. His latest film [circa 2006], "The Departed," is based on "Infernal Affairs," a 2002 Hong Kong thriller directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, about two moles: an undercover cop who has infiltrated a criminal gang, and a crook who is embedded in the police department. So, who's the good guy and who's the bad guy? Frank Costello, the gangster kingpin played by Jack Nicholson, says: "Cops or criminals: When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" And what about when you're pointing one? In the cosmic sense, we're all facing that loaded gun, and brandishing one, every day. And the difference -- if there is any -- is what Scorsese makes his movies about.
Watching certain Scorsese pictures today ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas," "Casino" and others), you can appreciate the ways they both reflect and question the prevailing moral climate in early 21st-century America. It's a topsy-turvy universe in which the President of the United States himself insists that judgments about "goodness" and "badness" are not to be based upon actions, but are simply pre-existing existential conditions. Good or bad, right or wrong -- it just depends on which side you're on.
Bad, bad Jack, feasting on food and scenery.
UPDATE: Revisiting "The Departed."
Everybody's saying "The Departed" is Martin Scorsese's best picture since "Casino" -- or even "GoodFellas." And some of the (over-)praise has struck me as pretty condescending to Scorsese: "Good boy. You stick to your mobsters now, won't you?" I'll go out on a limb and say I think it's his best picture since "The Aviator."
Adding almost an hour to the running time of "Infernal Affairs," the film on which it's based, "The Departed" does indeed fill in some of what one critic called the "ellipses" in the plot of the original film (and opens up at least as many other holes in the process). And yet, as others have also observed, Scorsese's movies have never been driven by plot but character -- and, in "The Departed," the characters, performances, moral ambiguities, and even the filmmaking prowess itself (all the things we treasure in A Martin Scorsese Picture) are not as rich or developed as those of its 2000 Hong Kong predecessor, much less Scorsese's own best and most personal work. (And let me add that this is not a knee-jerk response; I'm no big fan of Hong Kong action films. What I liked about "Infernal Affairs" was that there was more going on than in most of the HK crime movies or policiers I've seen, which I thought were bursting with empty action and little else.)
I'm going to write more about "The Departed" next week (to continue what I began in my MSN Movies essay, "GoodFellas and BadFellas", but in the meantime, I've patched together some of the critical observations from others that made me go "Yes! That's it!" -- either because I felt the same way, or because they expressed something I hadn't been able to formulate for myself in my initial thinking about the movie.
Meanwhile, after taking a look at these critical observations, please weigh in with comments of your own. (Just remember, it may take a while for comments to actually show up on the site.)