Retro Review: The Untouchables (1987)

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Director: Brian De Palma
Writer: David Mamet, based on The Untouchables by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Starring: Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy García, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery
Genre: Crime/Thriller/Drama

At the height of his career between 1973 to 1996, new Hollywood legend Brian De Palma was the inheritor of Alfred Hitchcock’s legacy as Hollywood’s greatest thriller filmmaker. His run of films included great movies like Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface and Mission: Impossible. In 1987, he released arguably his second or third most popular film behind the ones starring Tom Cruise and Al Pacino. 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Several scenes of characters being shot or beaten with large amounts of blood depicted. A character dies in an explosion however no gore is shown. 

Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including multiple uses of f***, s***, g**d*** and h***.

Drug/Alcohol References: The plot of the film deals with the repercussions of prohibition. Characters smoke and drink throughout the movie. 

Sexual Content: A nude painting is seen in the background of a scene.

Spiritual Content: Most of the characters are implicitly Catholic; religion isn’t widely discussed.

Other Negative Content: Themes of bending the rules, moral flexibility and corruption. 

Positive Content: Themes of justice, protecting the innocent, and stopping crime. 

Review

As I said in my review of Capone this week, America loves its outlaws. Americans are a rebellious lot and we tend to hold up our lawbreakers as folk heroes. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and Jordan Belfort all have legendary reputations (for better or worse). Among the most famous outlaws of the 20th century was the infamous mob leader, Al Capone. The man who ruled Chicago’s prohibition racket with an iron fist lived like a celebrity in the 1920s, despite the fact that his goons were running around the city murdering other gangs and bombing small businesses. Thus is the appeal of the outlaw; we’re willing to overlook a lot. 

Naturally such a persona is going to become perfect fodder for Hollywood films. Plenty of classic mob flicks and crime movies were partially or totally based on the life of Al Capone in the decades following his arrest, like Scarface (1932) and Little Caesar. Naturally, almost every film in the mobster genre, from White Heat to The Irishman, has drawn on the influence of Capone’s celebrity status. Perhaps the best film directly based on Capone’s story is one that isn’t directly about Capone, but about the world he created in Chicago and how it was brought down: The Untouchables

The film is based on the famous memoir of Elliot Ness, who described his journey as a government agent sent to take down Al Capone by any means necessary. It was famously adapted into a television serious in 1959, but became more well regarded with the subsequent film adaptation in 1987. 

The Untouchables isn’t just notable for being a great film about Al Capone and Elliot Ness. The film is an all-star production with some of the most important names in contemporary Hollywood at the helm. Legendary director Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Carrie, Scarface, Mission: Impossible) helmed a masterful script by legendary screenwriter David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, House of Games), and one of the strongest ensemble casts of its decade. Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro have some of the strongest on-screen chemistry of any blockbuster you’ll see!  The movie even managed to snag legendary composer Ennio Morricone (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West) for its soundtrack. 

This confluence of influences and disparate voices ended up synthesizing together perfectly. As much as the film is a serious crime drama about prohibition, the inclusion of a schlockmeister like De Palma and a western composer helped give the film a totally unique identity and feel. The movie feels like a Hitchcockian pulp-western thriller set against the glamor of 1920’s Chicago. It’s not the deepest movie in the world, but it’s one of the best thrillers of its kind. It’s also easily one of the best films in the filmographies of everyone involved!  

Thankfully the influence of all these voices all feel present. If you’re familiar with these filmmakers you’ll see their fingerprints all over this movie. De Palma mans the camera with a flare for style and suspense, capturing long, terrifying first person shots and tensely edited action scenes, like the shootout at Union Station. Mamet’s dialog crackles as it always does and informs the fictionalized versions of all these historical characters as they parse their way through real historical events. Morricone’s western themed score gives the film a sense of foreboding and moral chaos that reflects the lawlessness of the Wild West. All of this works to capture a particular feeling that The Untouchables wants the audience to understand: the fear of justice slipping through your fingers, and the fear of a sudden and violent death. 

This foreboding feeling is important because the movie wants you to understand just what it felt like to be a government agent on the heels of Al Capone. The film’s main character is the real life FBI agent Elliot Ness, who formed his infamous squad of “untouchable” cops and agents who were beyond the reach of Capone’s insanely corrupt grasp. In a city where two-thirds of the cops are secretly working for Capone, you have to be careful whom you can trust. Ness’ team thus fully dedicates themselves to the mission of defeating Capone by any means necessary, even if it means having to get their hands dirty and bend the law. 

If the movie has any major flaws it’s just that the movie’s stylization occasionally pushes the story beyond the realm of credulity. The good guys are just a little bit too good and get away with too much to feel totally realistic at times. The bad guys are cartoonishly evil and all-powerful, and yet there are times when it feels like they could resolve their problems almost immediately with a well-placed gunshot or an ambush, yet they don’t bother. Much of the historical aspect of the film feels rather loose (Elliot Ness was not such a clean-cut personality as he’s portrayed) but concessions to history are common in films that are pushing for entertainment.

Additionally, I’ve never been particularly fond of Robert De Niro’s performance as Al Capone. He’s got a good presence but he’s only seen in four scenes in the film. We only get to see Capone at his worst moments outside of the film’s prologue, so it’s hard not to view him as a cartoonish presence looming over the movie. The story works better when he’s an omnipotent figure looming in the distance. 

As a whole, The Untouchables is a complete and satisfying package. It’s my favorite De Palma, Mamet, and Morricone film all in one. Its thin narrative is elevated by its pungent tone, and an air of suspense makes its weaker moments worth the watch. By the film’s ending, the film blossoms as a brisk thriller with a wonderfully ironical final scene that still feels cathartic and earned. It’s the kind of thriller you can watch, enjoy, and leave with a good feeling about life knowing that the good guys have won the day. For Elliot Ness, even the cost of victory doesn’t sting when you’ve accomplished something so impossible. 

Positives

+ Great performances by Costner and Connery + Suspenseful cinematography and directing + Amazing Morricone score + Solid thriller script by Mamet + Palpable sense of tone and dread

Negatives

- Somewhat cartoonish, morally binary characters - Subpar De Niro performance as Al Capone

The Bottom Line

The Untouchables is one of the most enjoyable films in De Palma's filmography and a high point in the careers of everyone involved! After almost 33 years, the film is still enthralling, exciting, and emotional to this day!

 

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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