Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Untouchables (1987)

When Brian De Palma makes a movie, you’ll frequently see it advertised as “from the director of Scarface and The Untouchables.” This is because lots of people think these are his best/most popular movies. And yes, they’re slick, and pretty, and lots of money was spent. But The Untouchables is just about the coldest gangster movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of a movie I cared less about the characters in. The bloody, operatic death of a respected or liked character is moving. The bloody, operatic death of a fictional person I don’t care about is, well, just bloody.

You’d think this would be a fairly common complaint, given the team-up of De Palma with scriptwriter David Mamet. I mean, combine the two and you’re pretty much asking for humanoid robot aliens. Don’t get me wrong, I love De Palma—but I like him more when I’m not being asked to like people. Or when, as in his early work, I actually liked his people anyway.

Although the people here should be likable enough. Kevin Costner is still Kevin Costner, but he looks the part. Sean Connery is an Irish cop, but with the worst Irish accent ever. Not that it’s his fault. Asking Connery to replace his lispy brogue with anything is like asking Costner to emote; he’ll do it, but you certainly don’t want to watch. And it’s a very small problem in relation to the character as a whole. For instance, Ness asks him why, if he knows all about bringing down Capone, he’s still a beat cop? And we never find out. Also, he’s a racist. The lousy mick can’t tell the difference between a dago and a wop. Speaking of which, Andy Garcia does a great job as the only Italian in Chicago who’s not a gangster. And you’ll get a glimpse of an early Patricia Clarkson role as Ness’ wife.

But the things these actors are asked to do would stymie anyone. Connery and Costner have a meet-cute when Costner is caught littering. Conversations start with lines like, “Yes, I heard about it.” Connery has to say stuff like “It smells worse than a whorehouse at low tide” and “Here’s your warrant!” PUNCH. Costner, after two hours of bloody carnage, mutters “so much violence.” De Palma juxtaposes little girls praying with Capone bashing skulls in, as if to remind us of the horrible dichotomy of the world we live in. Then he shoots action scenes like horror movies, that don’t even get my adrenaline going enough to be aroused by the violence. Then there’s the famous Battleship Potemkin rip-off, with the baby carriage and all that. To my mind, appropriating a scene from another film in order to make something new of it is one thing. De Palma’s done this before, and brilliantly. But copying something without commentary or addition is just copying, unless you’re in Hollywood, and then it’s homage. Or proof you went to film school.

In the end, this movie’s pretty, with some good soundtrack moments by Ennio Morricone, but it’s not pretty enough for me not to care that I don’t care about anyone in it. I could make a really bad joke playing on appropriateness of the film’s title considering how I feel about it, but what’s t he point?

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