The Fighter vs. The Town vs. The Departed

For whatever reason, it seems that 80% of people cannot discuss the films The Town or The Fighter without mentioning The Departed.  With the recent arrest of Whitey Bulger, it also seems that people have started talking about The Departed even more than before.  I suppose that the temptation is overwhelming: The Fighter and The Departed beg comparison because Mark Wahlberg is in both of them, while The Town and The Departed are obvious rivals because one stars Matt Damon and the other stars Ben Affleck.  Critics and audiences seem to love comparing Affleck and Damon, and, for whatever reason, 90% of people believe that Matt Damon is a better actor.  Even The Onion seems to think that Affleck’s career is so much worse-off than Damon’s that they joked that Affleck wished he was in a Bourne Situation sequel.  (Yes, I realize that article is several years old, but it seems the opinion has little changed). Furthermore, all three films  a) were made within the last several years, b) set in Boston, or the surrounding area, c) were Academy Award contenders or winners, and d) have “The” in the title.

I have had enough of hearing about how The Town is a worse version of The Departed, or that The Fighter didn’t compare to The Departed, which is why I am explaining why The Departed deserves the least amount of respect out of the three films.  An easy obvious solution would be to make excuses for The Town and The Fighter: neither of them were directed by Martin Scorcese, so one might argue that it’s unfair to compare them to the film that earned him a Best Picture.  I will not take that easy route.

I will begin this argument with a fact that is often, sadly, a revelation to many people: The Departed is a remake of Infernal Affairs, a film that was made only four years earlier.  For whatever reason, this fact is largely ignored.  The only mention of Infernal Affairs on The Departed‘s wikipedia page is that it’s “fashioned as a remake.”   I’m not sure what that means, or what the difference between being a remake and being fashioned as a remake is.  What I do know is that every scene in Infernal Affairs made it into The Departed.  The main changes from the Chinese version to the American version are a) everyone speaks English in the American version, b) all the Chinese people were replaced by white people, c) two new characters were introduced (Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin), and d) the three women in Infernal Affairs were condensed into one woman in The Departed, a plot line that makes absolutely no sense (and will be further discussed).

One of several scenes from Infernal Affairs that ended up in The Departed. Actually, almost every scene from Infernal Affairs is in The Departed.

The reason this is a serious issue is that Martin Scorcese, every American reviewer, and most people I’ve ever talked to fail to mention this, or even be aware of it.  Scorcese didn’t even mention the name of the original film in his Oscar speech.

Does he know the original name?  He quickly mutters something about it, while the announcer refers to it as a Japanese film (it’s a Hong Kong film).  Finally, it takes some serious digging through its IMDB page to find mention of the fact that it’s a remake, unless you notice that one of its writers has a Chinese-looking name and you wonder what that’s about.

All of this is in contrast to The Town and The Fighter, two films that were also adaptations: The Town was the adaptation of a novel, and The Fighter was based on a true story.  Unlike The Departed, these films had the dignity and decency to mention their inspiration in the opening credits.  Unlike Scorcese, Christian Bale knew the name of his inspiration.  He spoke highly of the man he had portrayed and studied during his acceptance speech.  He even made an effort to get Dicky Eklund more business in his current endeavors.  Were the guys who created Infernal Affairs even invited to The Oscars on the night that their American bastard child took home a slew of trophies?

The guy Bale played in The Fighter. Because he got invited to the award ceremony when someone got a prize for pretending to be him.

Another issue with The Departed is that it’s complete nonsense.  The fast-paced, non-linear storytelling can attempt to distract you from this fact, but I challenge you to watch the film and then sit down and write out the plot of the story.  The storytelling is excruciatingly sloppy.  Characters make decisions to further the plot, rather than because it’s consistent with their personality.  People spout off dialogue because it sounds cool, rather than because it’s what they would be saying.

All three of these films have a sex scene in them, and the way each sex scene is handled (and its aftermath) sums up the film and its successes and shortcomings.  In The Fighter,  an attempt to make love between Micky Ward (Whalberg) and Amy Adams is interrupted when his mother and all his sisters show up at his house.  The almost sex scene serves as a contrast to the chaos and violence that ensues when Ward’s family goes after his love interest.  In The Town, the sex scene does lead to consummation: but it is tasteful, and is used as a way to show that Rebecca Hall’s character is still dealing with the psychological ramifications of her kidnapping at the beginning of the film.  It is later a source of contention and further anger between Claire (Hall) and Doug MacRay (Affleck) when she discovers that he has been a criminal and her kidnapper all along.

In The Departed, the sex scene exists because a sex scene was needed.  It’s entirely inconsistent with the character of the psychologist who, through some incredible coincidence, is both the court-appointed psychologist of the police informant inside the Costello gang, and the fiancee of Costello’s informant in the police.  She is also the only female character with a name and a half-formed personality in the film (the only others are Costello’s unnamed girlfriend or wife or whatever, and Billy’s dead mother).  The sex scene is tasteless, choppily edited, and occurs to the lovely tune of “Comfortably Numb”.  Furthermore – and here’s where it makes no sense – there was apparently no protection used in this scene, because the psychologist gets pregnant with Leo’s kid.  Who she believes to be a felon.  She has no idea he is a cop.  Her entire perspective of him is that he is an pill-chasing criminal who she has only met through therapy, where he discussed murder and suicide.  But she invites him into her house, delivers the line “Your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now,” and then sleeps with him.  She then tells Sullivan she is pregnant, who is completely shocked and indignant but does not for a moment question whether it’s his child or not.  (Also, according to a large amount of analysis of this film, he’s impotent.  But still doesn’t question it.)

Simply look at the role of women in each of these three films.  As stated above, there is one female with a name in The Departed – oh, except for Billy’s aunt, who is in that one part in the kitchen when she asks him if he’s still a cop (Remember?  The part where someone asks him if he’s a cop or not?)  In The Town, we have two female characters, each a developed character who also represents the contrasting paths that lie before Dougie MacRay.  In The Fighter, the majority of the characters are women, and they are written and portrayed passionately – these are real people, whose victories and defeats in their lives do not exist to further a plot or kill time between action scenes, but to create an emotional connection without beating the audience over the head with it.

Strangely enough, The Departed is often described as being a true story about Whitey Bulger.  This is something you probably heard about a lot after his recent arrest.  According to the wikipedia page, “Matt Damon’s character is based on John Connolly, the FBI agent who tipped off Bulger for years, allowing him to evade arrest.”  Which is strange, considering that Matt Damon’s character is actually based on Lau Kin-ming, and also strange because Damon’s character is a state police officer, not an FBI agent – he actually kills Costello when he learns that Costello is working for the FBI.

"Did you hear the guy The Departed was about got arrested? You didn't? No, in real life he never got shot by Matt Damon."

Which brings me to my final point.  The Town and The Fighter are both good because they don’t ask questions and then quickly follow them up with answer and morals – they give us stories of people and allow us to draw our own conclusions and reach our own decisions regarding what was right and what was wrong.  In The Fighter, we watch as the characters struggle with their weaknesses, but, because it’s based in reality, we don’t see them ever completely win.  We understand that their lives expand beyond this 120-minute narrative, but as we see their struggles, we connect to them.  In The Town, Doug MacRay is torn between identities, and we can see that there are no good guys and bad guys in his world.  Is Don Draper a bad guy, as the cop?  Or are the main characters bad guys, because they rob banks and shoot machine guns?  No.  It’s not that simple.

In The Departed, it is that simple.  Sullivan is a bad guy pretending to be a good guy, while Costigan is a good guy pretending to be a bad guy.  Costigan and Sullivan were never actually torn between their own conflicting identities.  They knew who they were the whole time – they just wore masks.  MacRay is actually affected by secretly being the man who kidnapped and held-at-gunpoint the woman he is now dating.  Yeah, Billy cries a lot and wants pills – but it’s because it’s stressful pretending to be evil when you’re actually a nice guy.

See? There's a part in The Town where Affleck gets really sad. Okay, this photo probably doesn't prove my point.

The strange thing is that this is one of the places where The Departed diverges from its source material, and where it takes the easier route.  In The Departed, there is a repeated line about “there is no difference between a cop and a criminal when you’re looking at a loaded gun” or something like that.  The problem with that is that there does appear to be a difference, in the film.  We are repeatedly told that Sullivan is a bad guy pretending to be a good guy – not a guy dealing with a personal conflict.  At the end, he kills Nicholson because he is angry and betrayed, not because he has made any kind of decision.  Yes, in Infernal Affairs it gets a little over-the-top with “I have made my decision to be a good guy,” but at least it tries a little harder to give us some depth to the conflicted anti-hero.

Ultimately, The Departed makes no sense.  Why does everyone applaud Sullivan after he shoots Costello?  Seriously, why?  That was their goal during the whole movie?  Show up to a drug deal and start shooting people?  If that’s all they were trying to do, why did they have informants planted for years?  Why did they even have an investigation if they were going to blow their load by bringing in a bunch of cop cars for a shootout at the end?  What was all that talk of “building a case”?  Wasn’t the FBI pissed that Sullivan killed one of their informants without any authorization?  How did Billy Costigan manage to not get hurt when everyone he was with died?  He just said “hey, I’m an informant” and they said “Okay, we have to believe you because your bosses both don’t work here anymore more”?

So are The Fighter and The Town actually better movies than The Departed? Yes, The Fighter is better.  As for The Town:  I don’t know.  Maybe.  It’s hard to say.   But to be honest, I think The Departed is best for repeated viewings.   Even if it makes less sense the more you watch it, it’s still the most fun, and the ending where Dignam shows up again is one of the most satisfying endings of all time.

Also, the rumors are still out there that they’re going to make a sequel to The Departed.  Okay, it might not make a whole lot of sense, considering everyone is dead – however, what if you threw Bale into the mix, and pitted him against the only two survivors from The Departed:

We know that Bale and Wahlberg make a good team. Maybe The Departing could be a film worth watching.


  1. I really love this analysis. These are some of my favorite films and I find this is challenging in the most wonderful ways. I like the fast-paced amost negligent plot of The Departed. It really leaves little to thought, but I enjoy the simple twists, the great actors (that we can’t argue), and the backdrop of Boston is always lovely. The language is a win-win. 😀

  2. I like bale in the mix alongside wahlberg, maybe working in NY: bale undercover, wahlberg his handler.
    As far as scorsese goes, wahlberg sums up his sense for homage and his audience during the departed: “treat em like mushrooms: feed em shit and keep em in the dark”

  3. Thanks guys. I agree with what both of you said – Scorcese has this smoke-and-mirrors method of moving things along so smoothly that you don’t realize that you’re not actually sure what’s going on. Part of me assumes that a sequel to The Departed would be unbelievably bad – and I think they would have to avoid giving Wahlberg too big of a role, or it would end up just as bad as The Happening or The Planet of the Apes of almost ever other film he’s ever starred in.

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