Dick Tracy (1990)

*. Given the current hegemony of superhero movies at the box office it would be easy to see Dick Tracy as a forerunner, a taste of things to come. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was more like the last gasp of the old guard.
*. There had been comic book movies before Dick Tracy. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies, most notably. And Batman (which provided the publicity and merchandising template) had just come out the year before. But there was a big difference between these movies and what we’d get in the twenty-first century, bigger even than the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes. The real gamechanger was CGI.
*. It was CGI that gave filmmakers the ability to create comic book worlds that were real. Before that, blue screen made it hard to believe that someone could fly. With the aid of computer graphics anything was possible.
*. With its studio-bound and consciously artificial look, built out of powerful blocks of primary colours, Dick Tracy is the opposite of a machine-made movie. It’s the product of a style of craftmanship that would soon be obsolete. It still looks beautiful today, but in a way that’s become very much the look of the past. A past, I might add, that we’re unlikely to ever see again.
*. It’s lucky it does look so good, because Dick Tracy‘s appearance is pretty much all it has going for it. There’s an impressive collection of talent both in front of and behind the camera (with a lot of the all-star cast unrecognizable in make-up), but the story is thin and uninvolving. We never really feel as though anything is at stake and the one twist is easily deduced just through a simple process of elimination.
*. But I’m not sure they could have done much more. When you get right down to it, Dick Tracy isn’t that interesting a character is he? How would you give him depth? He’s a square guy and that’s about it. A sequel was originally being considered but there were squabbles over rights and it never got off the ground. This was probably for the best, as I just don’t see where they could have gone with such a franchise. Superman was square too, but at least in his case something could be made out of his not being of this world, a stranger in a strange land. Tracy is a dead end, with no past and no possibility of development.

*. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that rock stars don’t make great actors. Madonna comes off better than most here, perhaps as the role of the night-club vamp was pretty close to her persona at the time anyway. The rest of the cast, including Beatty, seem to be having fun playing caricatures of roles they were familiar with. But I also got the sense that they were having more fun than I was. Pacino in particular doesn’t strike me as all that funny despite going way over the top.
*. Roger Ebert: “The Tracy stories didn’t depend really on plot – they were too spun-out for that — and of course they didn’t depend on suspense — Tracy always won. What they were about was the interaction of these grotesque people, doomed by nature to wear their souls on their faces.” This sounds so good I wish it were true. I don’t think it is. The prosthetic faces just seem like a line-up of grotesques. Few of the baddies have any lines, much less a soul we can peer into.
*. The music. I like Stephen Sondheim’s show tunes. “Sooner or Later” won an Academy Award and has managed to stick in my head just a bit. Danny Elfman’s score, on the other hand, sounds a lot like his Batman score. Maybe that’s what Beatty wanted.
*. In 2010 Keith Phipps wrote a retrospective piece for Slate that asked “”Where did it go? It’s not that the movie has been unavailable; those so inclined can easily pick up the feature-free DVD released without fanfare in 2002. But who thinks about Dick Tracy today?” Five years later, writing in Vanity Fair, Kate Erbland had a piece titled “Dick Tracy Turns 25: Why Has Everyone Forgotten the Original Prestige Comic Book Movie?”
*. So, where did it go? Why has it been forgotten? I think for much the same reason that all the early superhero, comic book movies have been largely forgotten. They were washed away by the Marvel tsunami. Also: they really weren’t that good in the first place. I think those of us who saw them when they first came out will always have some fond memories of them, but they’ve become a bit embarrassing. As far as Dick Tracy goes, I still love the look of it and think it deserves to be seen on a big screen. Aside from the visuals and the one song, however, the rest of it is very forgettable.

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2 thoughts on “Dick Tracy (1990)

  1. Tom Moody

    The only moment that stays in my head since the initial run is Madonna singing that pretty song while a montage of shooting and violence plays on the screen. That’s become a trope — I think Breaking Bad used it — but it seemed strange and slightly eerie at the time.

    Reply

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