Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Untouchables - Retro Review

Originally posted January 15, 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Anybody who knows me knows that I love gangster movies. What you may not know, it that unlike Bill Murray movies, Star Wars, or cartoons, I came into them later in life. My parents were protective of me and like good parents, they actually monitored what I watched, so as a result, I was the only kid in my school that didn’t get to see Boyz N The Hood when it came out and in fact, I was not allowed to see it until I was 32. But, I fell in love with my favorite film (and my favorite director) Goodfellas when I was in high school. The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America, Mean Streets, were all movies I saw in high school or later, as I rediscovered the great Warner classics like Public Enemy, White Heat and even last year, finally getting a copy of Howard Hawks’ Scarface on DVD. The only movie I did get to see when I was a kid, that has always been dear to my heart, was and is The Untouchables.

I watched it again last night in order to familiarize myself with it for this review and ten minutes in, I forgot I had a piece to write. The film is extremely well made, with engaging characters, fine acting, great writing and a sense of direction that moves the story along with suspense and excitement. The movie came out at a time that was dead for the genre after the financial flops of Godfather III and such films as Johnny Dangerously and Bugsy Malone. It revitalized the gangster movie and had audiences wanting more leading directly to the production of movies like my Goodfellas and Warren Beatty’s Bugsy. In addition, for being a commercially driven movie about a revisionist time in history, the almost “Wild Mid-West” era, it feels twenty years young and better than most of the movies that come out today. Coming after films that tended to glamorize the criminal lifestyle following the changing trend in gangster films after Bonnie & Clyde, it was important in re-establishing the ideas of cops and robbers in a historic context for a generation that had never seen the television series with Robert Stack.

For The Untouchables is, after all, a gangster movie about a cop. Told almost exclusively from the point of view of Eliot Ness and his team of Untouchables, one of the main themes of the film is the cop “becoming what he beheld.” I guess I am glad that I was allowed to see it when I was young, because the movie carries valuable moral lessons and asks tough questions of its audience. "What are you prepared to do? " "Never stop fighting until the fight is done." And of course, "I get NOWHERE unless the team wins". The heroes and villains are clearly defined in the movie and great pains are taken to put the audience on the side of Eliot and his team and to portray Al Capone as the charming cold-blooded criminal he actually was.

The best tool is the cast itself. Kevin Costner starred as Eliot Ness when he was mostly known for baseball movies like Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, but he had yet to break through with heavy roles in movies like JFK and Dances With Wolves. Although most people today think of him as a director and associate him with Waterworld, for a slightly older audience, Costner is a very skilled, very talented actor whose only weakness is the inability to work with an accent. (See Robin Hood-Prince of Thieves.) He plays Ness to perfection, doggedly determined, straight laced and serious and with a compassion for his family and his friends. Indeed, like most of the great actors, the Grants, the Brandos, there is very much a lot of Kevin Costmer that comes through in Eliot Ness. Andy Garcia was a fierce young actor, looking to break out and prove himself with a huge commercial hit when he took the role of George Stone, the fierce young cop, looking to prove himself on the police force. Miles removed from his well known role in the Ocean’s trilogy, he hadn’t played an action role, and hasn’t really since. Garcia slips easily into the role of Stone, a Cuban playing an Italian pretending to be a WASP. When I saw the movie when I was a kid, I only remembered Charles Martin Smith from his role in American Graffiti and was excited to see Toad as a federal agent, chasing down Al Capone. DePalma uses our preconceived notions of Smith as an actor, playing him for comic relief and making him the most likable and relatable of the group. Of course, the two stars of the film, then and now, Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro came into the movie with a history of cinema behind them, making their casting even more significant. Who better to teach the young Ness how to catch a criminal than James Bond himself? This was after Connery had stopped playing Bond for less than a decade and before he would play famous father, Dr. Henry Jones. But, nobody plays an Irish cop like the Scottish Connery and most present day impressions of Connery come directly from his performance in this film. (Yes, mine included.) The stories involving DeNiro’s involvement are legendary and accurate, from using Capone’s actual tailor, to gaining weight for the role, to the studio passing over Bob Hoskins for the role and still paying him. But, as with any film of his, all of his preparation is clear in the very small amount of time he spends on screen. Playing two of the greatest gangsters in the history of fiction and non-fiction, Al Capone is actually the role that is most dissimilar from that of Vito Corleone or even DeNiro’s personal persona. It’s so much fun to watch him play Capone as the media darling of his time, speaking to large crowds in almost every scene, when the real DeNiro is actually well known for keeping a very private personal life. In this regard, he truly stretches himself to find something we’ve never seen before.

Now, I have gone on record as not being a fan of Brian DePalma, and believe I have used the phrase “whore to Hitchcock” in describing him, but this is one of his finest films and is the result of a director who had refined his technique, working at the top of his craft. The movies does have the two DePalma signature sequences, one being the voyeur point of view shot in Malone’s apartment and the second is the straight up rip off another director’s creation, specifically, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin Odessa steps sequence. In all fairness though, for being a director who is know for being liberal with the term “homage”, this film is probably the most parodied of all his films and certainly of any gangster movie besides The Godfather. From the baseball bat speech to the liquor raids, the film has innumerable sequences which are instantly recognizable and have made the film a modern day classic and a new standard in the genre. Since DePalma is mostly regarded for his horror and thriller films, he uses those elements carefully here, with precise, even-handed violence and, in large part to Ennio Morricone’s score, creates a element of tension that keeps moving until the final five minutes of the film.

However, I would have to throw myself off a roof with Ness pushing if I went through this entire review without mentioning the amazing script from David Mamet. Having worked with the man personally on The Unit, I can tell you that all the stories people have made up about him over the years are true. The man’s talent is immeasurable and with such classic lines as “You’re mucking with a G here pal,” and “You’re nothing but a lot of talk and a badge,” Mamet had you covered, no matter what side of the law you were on. His dialogue cuts like a knife, because he knows that’s how you get to the audience! That’s the Chicago way! Dialogue from scenes in the church, in the barber’s chair and especially Ness’ speech about bribes are classic Mamet, on par with anything in Glengarry Glen Ross. Again, for being a film so well defined about the battle between good and evil, he writes heroes you identify with and root for, while still making Capone a likable villain, but so ruthless, you cannot wait for Eliot to take him down. And that is a large part of what makes the movie great.

If you haven’t seen the movie in awhile, I implore you to watch it again. It’s such a great movie, with an easy to follow story, some humor and awesome action that it easily makes for what a friend of mine likes to call “rainy day movies.” And, if you check it out and enjoy it again, I ask for no monetary restitution, just that you check out another one of the highlighted films that you may not have seen before. Comment, post, agree, argue, debate, but above all else, watch more movies!

“Here endth the lesson.”

The Untouchables directed by Brian DePalma, starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro is available on DVD from Paramount Studios. Winner of one Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Sean Connery.

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