It’s always disappointing to return to movies that you have very fond memories of from when you’re younger that fail to live up to the high expectations memory has endowed them with. It doesn’t happen often. Usually the sheer nostalgia factor tends to overwhelm the senses and make me push aside any shortcomings I have towards a film. This is particularly true of children’s films and the reason why you could pop in any episode of any 90s cartoon and I would be lost in joy for as long as you put it on. But for a film presumably for grown-ups which I watched first as a young teenager, my mature self (and certainly more knowledgeable of good vs. bad cinema) can pick out the flaws in films I used to enjoy so completely. And although The Untouchables can be a rousing adventure story; it is just that. While trying to capture the feel of the classic crime films of yore, The Untouchables comes off like an overly romanticized (and overly directed) boys tale.
In the 1930s, Prohibition is in full-swing and bootlegging alcohol is the key to making a quick buck. And in the corrupt streets of Chicago, nobody does it better than Al Capone (Robert De Niro). A self-made millionaire, Capone was a murderous gang leader who held the illegal alcohol racket under his boots through a mix of intimidation, murder, and great press relations. After one of his thugs accidentally murders a ten year old girl as part of Capone’s racketeering schemes, federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) makes it his personal crusade to bring down the most powerful man in Chicago. And when Ness quickly discovers that Capone has most of the Chicago police department in his back pocket, he forms a small team, including wise Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), crackshot rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia), and G-Man accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), to get the job done.
I have a litany of complaints about the film but at the end of the day, it’s still enjoyable as long as you realize that this isn’t an especially serious take on one of our nation’s most famous criminal investigations. The film’s script came from the inimitable David Mamet (Wag the Dog), and either his famous ear for dialogue was completely broken for this movie or director Brian de Palma intentionally dumbed the script down. I don’t know who to blame. But at the end of the day, the film sounds almost comically noble. Whereas White Heat or The Public Enemy succeed because their dialogue sounds realistic and gritty, The Untouchables makes Eliot Ness and his crew sound like superheroes. The only exception, of course, being Sean Connery’s Jim Malone (but more on that shortly). Certain scenes ring with the typical Mamet brilliance (a great speech from Al Capone before he murders an associate rings to mind), but the majority of the film features hilariously overblown theatrics.
And this is going to sound crazy, but Ennio Morricone’s score for the film is also downright laughable. He’s a man that is perhaps one of the top three or top five beloved scorers in the history of cinema, but the score for the film is laughably over-the-top. It was holding the audience by the hand and telling them exactly how to feel in every single scene without a hint of concern for subtlety or not being laughably obvious. Though, to be fair to Morricone, certain numbers worked very well. Although one can’t blame him for his score being over-the-top and noble in a strained sort of way when virtually everything about the film screamed of simply trying to hard.
And, boy, did Brian de Palma just over-direct the hell out of this movie. I love Fellini. I love Terence Malick. I love Akira Kurosawa. I love directors that put themselves into every frame of their films. But, you have to know what you’re doing in order to make that kind of constant visual flourish work. And, at least for this picture, Brian De Palma did not know what he was doing. And, if he did, he was clearly trying to frustrate trained viewers with almost unending, unnecessary visual quirks. One of the film’s most famous moments (and arguably the climactic shoot-out) nearly made me start laughing, not because the scene was supposed to be funny, but because De Palma was so desperately trying to channel Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin when it was totally not needed. And about half of the film consists of such over-the-top silliness.
The movie does have one absolutely perfect thing going for it, and it’s the delicious performance of Sean Connery as Jim Malone. As the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably racist, street-wise cop that helps Ness break up the whole Capone operation, Sean Connery breathes a breath of life and realism into a film that is otherwise something a bunch of wide-eyed teenage boys would tell each other around the camp fire as they recount the feats of heroism of “the Untouchables.” The way that Connery makes you forget how terrible his dialogue can be (and boy can it be bad) is a marvel. Compared to the stone-faced performance of Kevin Costner (who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly an Oscar-caliber performer), the Academy Award-winning performance from Sean Connery lights up the screen and your imagination, and if you’re anything like me, you likely spend much of the film simply wishing there was more Jim Malone.
After so many harsh words (and so few good ones), you might think that I really hated this film. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it. As a cops & robbers movie, it’s fun. You just have to know that it isn’t a serious look into this fascinating period. It, in fact, reminds me of a conversation Jesse James and Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James about Robert Ford’s love of the dime novels about Jesse’s exploits. This film is the 1980s version of a 1930s story. And that’s ok. For what it is, it’s a fun movie. Just don’t expect it to be anything more. Because otherwise, you’re going to be greatly disappointed. It’s just sad because you expect so much more from the pairing of David Mamet and Brian De Palma.
Final Score: B