The Departed/Infernal Affairs

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Studios
Warner Home Video ("The Departed"), the Weinstein Co. ("Infernal Affairs")

A murderous gang leader, played with verve and sly humor by a virtuoso veteran actor.

Two tough, buff, charismatic leading men delivering some of the best performances of their supercharged careers.

A head-spinning tale of deceit involving cops and robbers -- all of them desperate to unmask the traitors among them.

Worldwide acclaim for a transcendent genre film.

That's the line on "Infernal Affairs," the famed Hong Kong gangster film from 2002. Then we have the U.S. remake, Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," just named best picture at the Academy Awards.

Scorsese remains an undisputed master of the gangster movie. But pretty much no one ranks "Departed" in the same league as the director's "GoodFellas." Scorsese has made better films than "Infernal Affairs" -- this just isn't one of them. Few fans of the "Infernal" trilogy would consider the Oscar winner more than a respectable, simplified remake.

When Warner debuted the highly anticipated "Departed" DVD a few weeks back, the Weinstein Co. got in on the action, releasing "The Infernal Affairs Trilogy" the same day as part of its Dragon Dynasty series. The box set (retail $39.99) comes with the original film, its equally stunning prequel ("Infernal Affairs 2") and a third, lesser finale.

It's a big disappointment, then, that the set's copy of "Infernal Affairs" is the same Miramax disc that came out a few years ago. Exactly. Weinstein simply bought a batch from Disney, which has the title locked up via Miramax.

That DVD, which streeted in 2004, looks OK but far from inspired. With Christopher Doyle's cameras sweeping over all that metal, glass and high-tech gear, you'd think the visuals would sparkle. The title deserves a first-class audio-video overhaul; too bad Weinstein didn't have the rights.

"Infernal Affairs 2" and "3" are new discs, giving the titles their first wide distribution in the states. (Separately, they retail for $19.95.) Visuals and audio still aren't impressive, but they improve on the first disc.

All three DVDs come with making-of promos intended for Asian viewers. "Infernal Affairs 2" has a group commentary and deleted scenes. None of the extras on these discs goes beyond the usual promo chatter or puts the series' global success into perspective.

"Infernal Affairs" premiered in 2002, a sleek vehicle for stars Andy Lau ("House of Flying Daggers") and Tony Leung Chiu Wai ("Hero"). The film's gangland boss was played to perfection by Eric Tsang, who found humor and humanity in the villain. Jack Nicholson played an entirely different role in "Departed."

"Infernal Affairs" resists viewers' attempts to make sense of it all in a single viewing. The basic plot is simple, though: The cops plant a young mole in a gang; the gang plants a young mole on the police force. The moles grow up and hunt each other. (Fans might want to shake things up by viewing the films 2, 1, 3 in a more or less linear experience.)

The prowling cameras and rapid-fire editing keep viewers on edge throughout. Communications technology has a co-starring role: cell phones are like oxygen; computers run the characters' lives. (None of this translates well in Scorsese's film.) All is not slick, however. As with, say, John Woo's Hong Kong crime films, there are soap-opera moments and some sappy music -- they just come with the territory.

The films are 2.35:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TVs. They are in Cantonese with smart, clear subtitles. The 5.1 audio stays mostly front and center, with bursts of energy now and then from the rear soundstage.

*****

Warner's releases of "Departed" (DVD, combo HD DVD and Blu-Ray) look great and sound good. The HD combo disc allows for a direct comparison, with the high-def version kicking serious tail on the older format.

The prime extra is a 21-minute documentary on Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, whose real-life exploits were retrofitted onto the "Infernal Affairs" framework. Scorsese says the movie and the character played by Nicholson are "in no way" about Bulger -- but he adds, curiously, "We felt comfortable in the character and in the situation because we know it to be true."

The docu (which starts out like a promo before getting down to business) wanders about South Boston getting the locals' take on Bulger, a regular on the FBI's most-wanted list. "He may be a gangster, but he's our gangster," one citizen says. An ex-lawman isn't quite so magnanimous: Bulger "enjoyed nothing better than a good kill."

The other docu looks at Scorsese's involvement with gangster movies, personally and professionally. "He's the king" of mob movies, actor Mark Damon says. Scorsese points out that only five of his 20 movies are in the genre. But, "they get a lot of attention."

Scorsese talks about his childhood fascination with such gangster films as "Little Caesar," "White Heat" and the original "Scarface," which gets a quick salute in "Departed."

"What I saw in these movies was the rise and the fall" of the gangsters, the director says. "The fall was most important."

Glenn Abel's new home video blog can be found at www.dvdspindoctor.com.

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