The Untouchables (1987)

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*. You can’t get back to the “real” story of Al Capone from here. Eliot Ness was an agent with the Bureau of Prohibition who wrote a self-aggrandizing account of his crime-fighting days that was hyped up by a ghostwriter, made into a television series and then into this movie.
*. In fact, Ness had little to do with catching Capone. He wasn’t involved in the investigation of the tax evasion charges that brought Capone down at all. This is a very Hollywood version of history. Take the trial. It has some basis in fact in that the jury was switched, but this occurred before the start of the trial. The idea that the jury could be switched mid-trial is ridiculous. What would the new jury know of the case, having heard none of the evidence thus far?
*. Robert De Niro at least bears some resemblance to a younger Al Capone. But Billy Drago as Frank Nitti? Not even close.
*. The real Frank Nitti, by the way, took over from Capone briefly and later committed suicide.
*. Was this movie a dry-run for JFK or what? There’s our sterling, humourless hero (Kevin Costner, who was not a star at the time) fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. His wife and children are threatened even in their home, but he perseveres over the corruption of the system and enjoys his day in court. I wonder how influenced Stone was by this.
*. Things begin with an impressive credit roll. Even the wardrobes by Armani. You think this has to add up to something good. Or at least expensive.
*. But most of the talent, outside of the wardrobe, disappoints. In particular let’s look at the writing, by David Mamet, and Brian De Palma’s direction.
*. Mamet’s a good writer of dialogue, but none of it worked for me here. I thought the script seemed put together out of spare parts, with no twists in the plot or interesting lines.
*. Poor Robert De Niro. He wasn’t applauded for his turn as Capone, but I don’t think it was his fault. The script gives him absolutely nothing to say or do. His Capone has no depth, but only a childish petulance that explodes into tantrums of humdrum violence. That this is probably close to how the real Capone behaved doesn’t salvage lines like “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna piss on his ashes!”

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*. Roger Ebert: “The script is by David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but it could have been by anybody. It doesn’t have the Mamet touch, the conversational rhythms that carry a meaning beyond words. It also lacks any particular point of view about the material and, in fact, lacks the dynamic tension of many gangster movies written by less talented writers. Everything seems cut and dried, twice-told, preordained.”
*. Then there’s De Palma’s direction. As usual he builds the movie around a lot of set-piece scenes or sequences. The problem here is that the two big ones don’t really add anything to the movie and come across as forced and contrived.
*. The cowboys vs. gangsters shootout at the bridge on the Canadian border seems to me totally superfluous. Apparently De Palma just wanted to get out of Chicago and invoke a kind of John Ford morality (as if that was necessary given Costner’s presence). And the whole thing seems more silly than suspenseful.

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*. The same can be said of the Battleship Potemkin homage at the Chicago train station. This wasn’t in Mamet’s script but was instead made up by De Palma on the fly. It’s well executed but again seems contrived and rather funny (especially with those sailors getting caught in the crossfire). It’s also not a real homage to Eisenstein as the use of slow motion isn’t in the spirit of the original. And what is the point of it thematically? It’s just showing off.

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*. Aside from that, there’s also a penchant here for very high (indeed, directly overhead) or low angle camera shots. They are often quite pretty, but don’t mean much and after a while you start to feel De Palma just likes composing this way, flattening out the screen.
*. How many times does Connery’s Jimmy Malone get hit with bullets before being killed? Come on. Try and keep it real.
*. Or was keeping it real not the point? Is it a comic book? Are the Untouchables a proto-Fantastic Four? The stereotypes — the hero lead, the gruff old dog, the nerd, the ethnic — certainly suggest that analogy. And I get the impression Pauline Kael thought so too (“the slight unbelievability of it all makes it more enjoyable”). You just have to keep in mind when reading her review that Kael was writing before the comic book aesthetic became so dominant (see my notes on King Kong).
*. It’s pop entertainment, but too much so for me. I can’t help but think when watching it that more could have been done with the talent involved. Lack of historical accuracy I can take. Unbelievability too, up to a point. But anything more and you’re just being silly.

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