Great artists sometimes create beneath their gifts, just for a lark. This describes the role Brian De Palma plays in The Untouchables (1987). The movie is slick, a big-studio take on the traditional gangster flick. And directors of De Palma’s caliber may pass on a project like this, unless they can find a way to spin it into something better. Fresher, more unique. Gold.
That doesn’t happen here. The movie is fun, though, a sturdy piece of entertainment.
Chicago, 1930: Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), an agent for the Bureau of Prohibition, is out of his depth. The bureau has ordered him to stop Al Capone (Robert De Niro), a gangland brute with the city in his grip, from selling bootleg liquor. After his first liquor raid fails, Ness forms a team of “untouchables.” Deeply moral, vowing to go after Capone by any legal means necessary, Ness crosses paths with Malone (Sean Connery), an old Irish beat cop who knows more about Capone’s reach than he at first lets on. Joining forces with Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), an accountant the feds task with helping Ness, Malone and Ness recruit Stone (Andy Garcia), an Italian-American cop in training. Men of integrity they are — an unlikely, incorruptible gang of ‘straights’ who, with Malone’s prodding, must look within themselves to do whatever it takes to bust Capone.
Working from a tight script by David Mamet, De Palma forgoes any trace of moral ambiguity. This tale of cops and mobsters is black and white. Sure, the good guys question their methods, the lengths to which they’ll go to take an eye for an eye; but they stay good. The bad guys are rotten apples, through and through. Nothing here puts our back up against the wall. The film’s notion of justice is without pretense (it seems to say that a good, honorable, and law-abiding person is bound to have justice on his side, if only he keeps fighting, regardless of what happens). De Palma glides through Mamet’s script. It’s a structurally sound edifice; the scaffolding holds.
A characteristically operatic, at times satirical stylist of the first degree, De Palma is muted here. He’s made an audience-pleaser, a watchable entry in the crime genre. We sense, however, that he’s not chortling behind the camera. He doesn’t reinvent the genre elements. It’s a commercial enterprise, an exercise in nostalgia, and he brings just enough of his pure-cinema style to make the whole thing go down smoothly. Savor the naked gumption of the massacre at Union Station (which lifts the Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin ). Relish the mini-movie shootout on the Canadian border – an almost comical, sunny Western. De Palma — whose films rise or fall on his success at linking set-pieces that are nothing if not cinematic seduction-by-technique-and-an-inner-wink — is here. His stamp is on the picture. He just doesn’t glaze it with that obsessive sense of fun, that soupçon of wickedness and grandeur, that propels his best work.
So, The Untouchables is reheated pulp, a hired-hand project designed to entertain and make a profit. De Palma’s not ‘working’ anything out within himself. Which is fine, of course… But he’s an artist. Take other, better gangster flicks of the ‘70s and ‘80s, though — like Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Leone’s imperfect swan song is a woozy pipe dream. It’s a gangster film stretched out, done up as a kind of dream — a film obsessed with the passage of time, with the melancholy of a life spent in thrall to the criminal pursuit of money and power. It’s pretentious, but it feels personal. Leone goes for poetry. The Untouchables is a film made by a pro; but its attitudes are tame, its tracing of the hero’s journey straightforward, if not banal. De Palma stays small.
Yet it remains good product.
And it’s visually rich. Shot in bold colors, the Panavision work by cinematographer Stephen H. Burum makes the most of the Chicago locations. Prohibition, arguably, never looked this good in a film. And the illusion would have held up better, had the great film composer Ennio Morricone turned in a less synthesized score. It’s not a bad score, per se, but the chintziness jars. It suggests a more anachronistic film. Each time I hear the gated drums, I’m thrown from the picture.
The cast gels. Costner gets over the degree to which Ness is an earnest wet. He sells us on the man’s moral fiber, on how important it is for him to take a stand for what’s right. This could have been a pained portrayal — agonized, even. (And, to play devil’s advocate to that remark, it’s possible that would have led to a more dramatically intriguing story.) But Costner doesn’t over-emote. Without trying too hard, he lets us see Ness think. We like him.
As Capone, De Niro is onscreen for about 10 minutes; but he casts a big shadow. With economy of craft, he gives us Capone the charmer of the press — a supreme gloat. He also reveals the grotesque behind the mask of Capone’s phony civility. This kingpin is outsized, a cartoon of emotion. It’s exactly what the film needs. The man’s an animal. Wisely, De Palma insisted on casting a powerhouse star, someone whose face and name (and all their attendant associations) would lend the film a mythic charge – an imposing figure who could play in stark opposition to the subtler, (then) lesser-known Costner.
Does Connery win the movie, though? Does the Pope wear white?
Connery’s performance is the most surprising one here. An old sage who mentors Ness, Malone (as portrayed by Connery) is the only character who suggests an inner life — like he’s an actual guy, not just a screenwriter’s device that helps Ness, the white knight, learn the ”Chicago way” of doing business. Afforded some of the film’s pithiest lines of dialogue, Connery is brilliant. (He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.) This was his best role since Robin and Marian (1976). Without Malone, The Untouchables is an empty ride. He’s the real hero of the story; he’s the film’s heart.
I doubt The Untouchables is most people’s favorite De Palma film. It is, however, a polished machine, an entertaining display of craftsmanship. And its success at the box office allowed him to keep working, to make some of the best films of his career.
I’m glad it exists.
Celebrating the film’s 35th anniversary, the Paramount 4K Ultra HD steelbook of The Untouchables contains an hour of legacy bonus content that details the development and production of the film. It also includes the theatrical trailer.
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