The Untouchables

Dir: Brian De Palma, 1987. Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro. Action.
The Untouchables
As frustrating as it is exciting, not to mention gorgeous to look at, The Untouchables succeeds in spite of its narrative inconsistencies and gaudy, oversaturated, and weirdly anachronistic film score. It shouldn’t work as well as it does but, for whatever reason, the story is compelling, the violence has a darkly operatic majesty, and, most amazing, we thrill to the actions of a bunch of prohibition enforcers. The combination of Brian De Palma’s “hard R” approach to classic Hollywood genre filmmaking and writer David Mamet’s nervy, sucker-punch dialogue are a beautiful match. The movie succeeds best as a series of excellent set pieces—the infamous baseball bat dinner party execution scene, a western-style Canadian border shootout, the ill-conceived-but-still-really-tense Battleship Potemkin-quoting Union Station scene— strung together without a true sense of narrative and thematic cohesion. Quibbles aside, though, it’s a highly entertaining gangster saga and, along with Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, one of the very best Chicago movies.

In the thick of Depression-era Chicago during the days of prohibition a federal agent named Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is appointed to head up a group to take on the Al Capone mob and its bootlegging operations. As he is in Chicago it’s immediately understood that the city was, is now, and probably always will be synonymous with civic corruption at every level. And heading a squad devoted to making it harder for people to get a drink doesn’t exactly endear him to his new colleagues. Suffice to say Ness has his work cut out for him. He sets about assembling a crew built to withstand the withering influence of institutionalized corruption.  Soon Ness’s “Untouchables” are formed consisting of Sean Connery, playing a cynical Irish beat cop, Andy Garcia, as a rookie Italian cop, and Charles Martin Smith as a nerdy federal agent trying to take Capone down for income tax evasion. As they take the fight to Capone and his underlings the bodies pile up and Ness finds himself in an increasingly lonely position trying to finish what his group started.

What drives me crazy about this film is the way the moral questions of Ness’s crusade are hinted at without being honestly explored. Ness gets bloodied by adopting gangland tactics against the mob and, by the end, he and Capone have slightly more in common than they did to start. But the implications of this discovery are unimportant to the filmmakers who instead are content to move on to an abrupt courtroom showdown that can’t help but disappoint after all that came before. It doesn’t help that the score by Ennio Morricone creates such a tacky, overbearing atmosphere for many scenes; he signals every emotion with glitzy overkill. There is also, perhaps, too little of De Niro who does his best with the screen time he gets though one wishes he had the chance to do more with the character. Still, this is blockbuster filmmaking with style and no matter how many times I’ve seen it The Untouchables is still exciting, rousing entertainment. 

The Untouchables was nominated for four Oscars including Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Patrizia von Brandenstein, William A. Elliott, Hal Gausman),  Best Costume Design (Marilyn Vance), and Best Music, Original Score (Ennio Morricone), and won for Best Supporting Actor (Sean Connery).
Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 14, 2012 4:58pm
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