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November 13, 2015

The Untouchables

by Franz Patrick


Untouchables, The (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to work with cops in Chicago to deal with the flow of illegal liquor and violence during the Prohibition. Everybody knows that Alphonse “Al” Capone (Robert De Niro) is ultimately in charge of importing and distributing alcohol to and around the country, but the police and others in power are either too afraid to stop him or are being paid to keep quiet. Agent Ness, therefore, thinks it is necessary to form his own team (Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia), men of the law with whom he can trust, to bring down the head gangster.

Based on the screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a good-looking action-thriller with a number of memorable set pieces that are certain to entertain. What the picture lacks, however, is complexity in terms of characterization. Though the demarcation between the good and the bad guys are well-defined, there is little cross-over in terms of how they think and the decisions they must make to achieve a goal. Thus, when a supposedly dramatic moment in which a character must choose between upholding the law versus personal vengeance, the dramatic gravity appears slight.

More than a few may argue that Costner is robotic in playing the lead—but I disagree. I enjoyed that it is difficult to read him at times, Costner playing Agent Ness almost guarded. After all, he is a stranger in the city and he has been assigned an important task of taking down one of the most visible criminals in the country at the time. I did not see his performance as robotic or wall-like; rather, the character has a lot to accomplish but he does not quite know where to start and so he covers it up by looking composed and professional. He wants to gain the respect of those who doubt what he can do.

De Niro’s performance is good but the character is not well-written. I found this Capone to be cartoonish—with only one really good scene involving a baseball bat. Mamet does not allow the character to do very much other than to look polished and sound sinister every time he must make a speech. The more interesting villain is Frank Nitti (chillingly played by Billy Drago), one of the henchmen who we cannot wait to get his comeuppance.

The action scenes make an imprint because they unfold like a thriller. Particular standouts include the station and the baby stroller, a rooftop chase, the raid at the border between the U.S. and Canada. De Palma employs uncomfortable pauses during critical moments. Just when we are ready to take the punch, he delays just a bit to catch us slightly off-guard. He does this time and again but it does not get old because there is almost always a bit of variation to keep the approach fresh.

The clothes, the sets, the hairstyles, and other elements designed to summon the 1930s are carefully picked out. Though they are easy on the eyes, they are never distracting. Couple the images of the past with a modern action-thriller score, one creates an interesting dichotomy. Although some may disapprove of the background music, I found it fitting considering the off-beat use of camera angles and pacing of action scenes.

“The Untouchables” would have been a more complete experience if we had gotten to know Agent Ness’ partners beyond what they can do superficially or their expertise. They are, however, given some memorable lines, particularly of Connery’s character giving advice to the federal agent in terms of what he should be willing to do or cross to capture the seemingly untouchable Al Capone.

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