Paramount // 1987 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // March 2nd, 2001
Just like a wop to bring a knife to a gunfight.
One of 1987's monster hits at the box office, Brian DePalma's film version of the classic television series stars Kevin Costner, in an early leading role, Robert De Niro in one of his early cameo roles, and Sean Connery in one of his first "mentor to the young kid" roles.
The movie is slick Hollywood entertainment all the way. Big, bloody and full of witty one-liners (courtesy of David Mamet), The Untouchables moves like a bat out of hell, going from set piece to set piece, almost never pausing to let the viewer catch their breath.
As released on DVD by Paramount, the disc boasts a beautiful anamorphic transfer, yet loses a great many points because of a fairly uninvolving 5.1 mix. In a familiar refrain, it goes without saying that the release comes almost totally devoid of any special features. Pity.
It is the 1920s and Prohibition is the law of the land. It is the time of Al Capone (Robert De Niro), the king of Chicago. Yet a new face has come to Windy City -- an earnest, family man sent by the Treasury Department to bring down Capone's reign of violence and intimidation. Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is his name, and together with his small group of agents, nicknamed the Untouchables, they will attempt the unthinkable: find a way to stop Capone, or die trying.
The big summer movie of 1987 (or least it was to me) was Brian DePalma's The Untouchables. From the beginning with the strains of Ennio Morricone's score, to the glowing cinematography of Stephen H. Burum, combined with the sumptuous production design of Patrizia von Brandenstein, and capped off by the beautiful wardrobe choices of Giorgio Armani, it was obvious no expense had been spared and there was something special on the screen. While I feel the passing years have been less than kind to the politics of David Mamet's terse and hard-boiled screenplay, it is still hard to deny the sheer entertainment value of The Untouchables.
It is impossible to discuss The Untouchables without first talking about director Brian DePalma. Is he the master pupil who studied at the footlights of the masters, or is he a demonized hack who has never composed an original camera setup in his life? Very few directors can inspire such intense discussions on both sides of the argument. In what is probably the slickest of all his feature films, DePalma was able to put the constant comparisons to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, to the side and instead be accused of ripping off Sergei M. Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin. Granted, as usual DePalma puts his own visual twist on the homage, but still it would be great if one day DePalma actually made his own film with no references or homages to get in the way. I know it is something I would love to see. Still, there is a lot to be said for his work on The Untouchables. He keeps the action moving at such a breakneck pace that one almost has no time to realize that the vast majority of characters, as written, are cardboard cutouts with almost no real emotion driving them. But keep it moving he does and it's enough to keep everything interesting until the film's final reel, when like so many movies, things just seem to run out of steam.
On the performance end, Kevin Costner (Silverado, Thirteen Days) makes a solid, if rather bland Eliot Ness. While he gives a very Gary Cooper-esque leading man image to the proceedings, it is his conversation at the end of the film to the Stallone/Schwarzenegger style of Republican justice that somehow rings false and has always left me with a sour taste in my mouth. There just does not seem to be a reason for the big change, Sean Connery death scene be damned. Or upon reflection, perhaps Costner just did not have the depth to pull it off. Either way, it's not a bad performance, yet simply one that is not strong enough to carry the weight of the picture.
If you are going to get an actor to play a one note character, I suppose you might as well get one of the world's greatest actors and have him ring the bell as hard as he can. It was that philosophy that kept Laurence Oliver in paychecks the last 25 years of his life, and in keeping with that, Robert De Niro is all bluster and ego as Al Capone. De Niro seems to play Capone as a force of nature, all wind and noise blowing through his town, Chicago. Yet his work has none of the true malevolence that can be found in such films as Angel Heart and Cape Fear. He certainly gives the heroes someone to work against, but it just seems so empty, so anti-climatic.
Also as part of the Untouchable squad is Charles Martin Smith (Never Cry Wolf, Deep Cover) as Oscar Wallace. Wallace is the accountant who figures out the way to put Capone behind bars and in his limited role he is his usual competent self.
Andy Garcia (Hoodlum, Things to do in Denver When You're Dead) turns up in an early role as sharpshooter George Stone. Like Smith, it's hardly a showcase role but it is one where he gives a good preview of future performances. Garcia is an actor I have enjoyed, and I have always wondered why he has never became a bigger star. Here he gives his part a good self-deprecating sense of humor and just enough anger to keep him interesting. Perhaps he would have been a better choice for Ness than was Costner.
The real star of The Untouchables though is Sean Connery in his Oscar-winning role as the world-weary beat cop, Jimmy Malone. Connery takes every line from Mamet's screenplay, turns it into gold, and makes it sing. It's a tribute to his work that of the two death scenes in the movie of Untouchables proper, it is Connery's that never fails to choke me up. Connery brings all his considerable talents to the table. The wry sense of humor, the determination and loads of good old-fashioned star power. It's very strong work that certainly earned him his gold statue. It is his performance that holds The Untouchables together and when he is gone, it's the goodwill from the memory of his character that keeps the movie afloat.
So far I have been fairly critical of things in The Untouchables, but it is a tribute to the craftsmanship that is so present in every frame that I was sucked into its world and found myself enjoying it all over again, all these years later.
Ennio Morricone's (Wolf, The Mission), score is one that is almost impossible to get out of the head once heard and helps the movie in spectacular fashion. Mood, tone and tension are all built and sustained by his work and it is a soundtrack recording that I come back to often.
DePalma regular Stephen H. Burum's cinematography once more is awash in golds, browns and of course, reds. It is beautiful and warm, yet cold and dispassionate when called upon. It remains one of the movie's strongest calling cards and some of Burum's best work on film.
All that work plus Giorgio Armani's stunning costumes and you have a mix that is simply pure Hollywood eye candy. It may be an empty house, but it looks beautiful on the outside and it was fun walking around.
For their part Paramount has come through in a big way with their anamorphic transfer. The framing maintains The Untouchables original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and it is wonder to behold. The picture easily handles Burum's warm images, keeping a certain old style softness while still remaining finely detailed. Colors are dead on, with flesh tones appearing both warm and natural. Blacks pose no problem either with excellent shadow delineation and having no shimmer or pixel breakup. Source material was not an issue as the print used was in excellent shape. Virtually no scratches or nicks are visible; a really fine job on the visual end from Paramount.
Well, after the fine job on the picture, I wish I could report the same level of excellence for the sound. Alas, it is not to be. The packaging lists the sound as Dolby Digital 5.1; well, take two numbers off and it would be a more accurate description. On the plus side, dialogue is well recorded and easy on the ears. Background distortions are minimal, with very few traces of tape hiss or sound pops. I suppose my overall wish is that the sound was more involving. Morricone contributes such an exciting score that it is a shame it is not heard to better effect. Directionally, the rears are hardly used and the bass is almost a non-issue. There seemed to be instances of slight shrillness and very little warmth. This is not a mix that fills the room and pulls you into the center of the action. Overall, it's a pretty disappointing experience. More should have been done.
In what is becoming the standard question in any Paramount review: where are the goodies? Big blockbuster hit, Oscar winning performance, big time director. Would a look back retrospective documentary been too much to ask for? An interview with DePalma or Costner? Hello Paramount! Repeat after me, DVD is not VHS part II.
Oh, never mind.
Despite all The Untouchables' many flaws, it is still a really fun movie. It's big, dumb and full of fun. It's got a great performance from Sean Connery and Paramount's visual production is top notch.
The downside is The Untouchables is kind of like that date you always were after. He/She looks great and the first time out is a lot of fun, but repeated dates prove that underneath the surface there is just not a lot there. To add insult to injury, Paramount drops the ball on the sound and extras. At a retail price tag of almost 30 bucks, it's hardly a cheap date either. If you have got to own it, look for it used or deeply discounted online. Otherwise, it's rental city.
The Untouchables is given a conditional release bearing in mind past services.
Paramount is ordered to hang around a meeting table while a crazy gangster walks round and round talking about teamwork, with an angry gleam in his eye. After all, it's the Chicago way.
Review content copyright © 2001 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R