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A second look at Scorsese's THE DEPARTED test screening...

Hey folks, Harry here... this is an extremely early test screening for a Martin Scorsese picture. Nearly 5 months out - he's finally putting his film in front of an audience, gauging and taking note of exactly what works and doesn't work with his film. Scorsese is a craftsman and at this stage the two reviews we've received have this film frustratingly close to greatness, but not quite there. Here's a film without final music, not the final edit and the first cut of the film. I'm sure, if you're like me, you have the utmost confidence in Scorsese to pull through on this. As for this being "another worthless remake" - I disagree. INFERNAL AFFAIRS is a GREAT Hong Kong film. Perhaps the best police procedural film that Hong Kong has produced. Scorsese doesn't go into the realm of remakes often. With CAPE FEAR - he brought in more than CAPE FEAR into that wonderfully pulpy high opera retelling of that classic film. With INFERNAL AFFAIRS - he's taking a different tack. Like John Sturges when he remade SEVEN SAMURAI into THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN - he's taking a Hong Kong Cop Action Suspense film and culturally shifting it into a realm he loves and knows. Will the result be great? We can hope - and we can hope he learned what he needed from this test screening. Watch out for spoilers...

So Martin Scorsese's pulling a Quentin Tarantino and remaking Hong Kong crime movies. What's this world coming to, with The Master now imitating his most fervent disciple? Hollywood being Hollywood, a whole constellation of A-listers jumped on board anyway, hitching their star-power to his wagon in the hopes it will finally complete its Oregon-Trail worthy trek to the Oscar podium.

And me being me, I jumped at the chance to attend an advance screening at Pipers Alley here in Chicago. I mean, Goodfellas is probably one of my top five favorite movies ever, a huge influence on my own writing, so like all the A-listers, I was hoping this would be the movie that finally gets Scorsese a little gold statue.

It probably isn't.

The Departed is a fascinating movie, a glorious sloppy mess of a movie that can't quite decide what it wants to be. Is it a Goodfellas-esque epic, with Boston Irish and Irish-Italians standing in for New York Italians and Italian-Irish? In the beginning, it feels that way, and when they started playing "Gimme Shelter" over the opening scenes, I actually felt a little sad. (I mean, I love Let It Bleed as much as the next guy, but using that just made me compare it unfavorably to the mind-blowingly awesome use of that and "Monkey Man" in the final frantic coked-out days of Henry Hill's mob career. I hope they pick something different for the final cut.) Is it a straight-up pulpy thriller with a few twists thrown in? For most of the movie, yes, which makes all the star power actually seem a little distracting and unnecessary. Is it a Shakespearean drama about lies and ambition and family and all those grand themes? That's what the end seems to be angling for, and although that aspect of it is great, it contrasts with the thriller pulpiness.

Speaking of Oriental, this is a very yin-and-yang movie, with Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio chasing each other around (and chasing the same beautiful police psychologist) in a big vortex of a plot, swirling faster and faster until their inevitable catastrophic collision. Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a smarmy Boston Southie hand-picked by mob boss Frank Costello to infiltrate the Massachussetts State Police from the ground up. (As to why they wanted him to be a state trooper rather than, say, a Boston policeman, I have no idea.) And Leo's William Costigan, another Statie chosen by his superiors to go undercover by doing time (the Underworld equivalent of the Police Academy) and infiltrating Costello's gang. Standing over them are the aforementioned Frank Costello, played with devilish glee by His Satanic Majesty Jack Nicholson, and a white-haired Martin Sheen as Captain Queenan, the closest thing to a God-the-Father-like good guy Scorsese's ever given us.

Damon's great; he slips into this role like it's a comfortable pair of shoes he's been breaking in all his life. His early scenes with police psychologist Madeline are some of the best in the movie, and some of the better romantic scenes Scorcese's ever directed. Alec Baldwin's very effective and convincing as a Beantown G-man; he has some great early scenes with Mark Wahlberg's Dignam, another Statie who basically alternates between being Queenan's lapdog and his attack dog. (Scorsese does cop scenes remarkably well in this movie; surprisingly enough, I liked the cop scenes better than the gangster scenes.) As for Leo, he does a capable job, and Scorsese does a lot with the relative physical similarity between him and Damon. Still, I don't quite like him as either a gangster or as a cop acting as a gangster; playing Howard Hughes in The Aviator was a better role for him, though he was more believable in this than in Gangs of New York.

Somehow this ended up as slightly less than the sum of its parts. There were some collective gasps from the audience at the right moments, but there also was a groan or two, and there's never a good moment for that. The plot was too clever by half; surprisingly enough, given the director, I felt it crowded out the character development to the point that DiCaprio and Sheen and (to a lesser extent) Nicholson and Damon ended up feeling like plot components rather than real people. (I actually haven't seen Internal Affairs yet, so I can't compare it to that, but I hope there's more of a sense of the divided loyalties that cops-as-gangsters and gangsters-as-cops must feel, a la Donnie Brasco; in this movie, neither Damon nor DiCaprio bond with their peers quite as much as one might have expected, although one gets some glimpses of the fallen-angel-kind-of-hoping-for-redemption in Damon's character.) I gotta admit it glued me to the chair, though; even though I knew The Master himself was probably in the back row watching us watch his movie, my fanboy ass resisted the urge to get up for a "bathroom break" and a chance to see him, and I instead stayed until the screen said (Insert Credits Here) and they started passing out the little survey thingys. (Unfortunately, me and my budding-auteur buddies weren't invited to stick around for the post-screening discussion, so we had to stick around for half an hour outside to get our glimpse of Scorsese.)

Anyway, I liked it, but I'm really hoping Scorsese cuts this into something with a more consistent feel, even if that cuts into its epic ambitions. I?m looking forward to seeing the final cut, even though I suspect it won't be quite as good as everyone involved in this probably hoped.

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