Untouchables, The (United States, 1987)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Untouchables is a tour de force, the pinnacle of a career. For Brian De Palma, known best for his stylish crafting of Hitchcock-influenced plots, The Untouchables represents not only a departure from the norm, but an unqualified triumph. This movie (loosely inspired by the TV series, which, in turn, was broadly influenced by historical facts) may not have much thematic depth, but it represents two hours of pure, exuberant entertainment – an epic gangster tale rendered on a grand scale.

The facts forming the bare-bones skeleton of the story are rooted in what happed in Chicago during prohibition, when Al Capone was the meanest and most powerful of the ganglords. One of the men to bring down Capone (who ended up going to jail on an income tax evasion charge) was Treasury Agent Eliot Ness. Most of the events surrounding Ness' triumph over Capone, however, are highly fictionalized, if not completely made-up. The Untouchables is the stuff of myth and legend, not reality. And, in a sense, that's what makes it such a satisfying motion picture experience.

The movie opens in 1930. Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) has just been assigned the Capone case and has arrived at his office in the Chicago Police Department full of righteous indignation and grand aspirations. Ness is a straight-shooter who believes that the law, whether good or bad, is paramount. He may not agree with prohibition, but, as long as that's the way the law is written, he will defend it, and that means getting Capone (Robert De Niro) off the streets. One of Ness' early liquor raids is a failure, and it turns him into a front-page laughingstock. However, instead of causing him to turn tail, it stiffens his resolve.

Ness' team of four comes together quickly. He is joined by a hardened Chicago cop, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), a man with a one line lesson for every occasion. Jimmy helps Ness recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia), a sharpshooter from the police academy. Then there's Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a Treasury Department accountant investigating Capone's lack of income tax returns who finds himself turning in his pen for a gun. Together, these four become known as "The Untouchables," and, in short order, they are inhibiting Capone's operation. That when the boss strikes back – viciously and violently.

The screenplay, by renowned filmmaker and playwright David Mamet, contains everything that's necessary for a rousing adventure: good guys, bad guys, a fast-moving plot, lots of meaty dialogue, occasional comedy, gut-wrenching tragedy, and a memorable ending. Plus, for a story that essentially turns out to be a representation of the age-old struggle between good and evil, Mamet throws in a little complexity. In order to get Capone, Ness cannot rely on the law for justice. He must go outside of it. When he recruits Jimmy, the cop asks him what he's prepared to do to win the war. Ness' response is, "I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so." Jimmy rebuts, "You wanna know how you do it? Here's how: they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send on of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?" By the end of the movie, here's what Ness says about his quest to bring down the worst of the ganglords: "I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I swore to defend. I have become what I beheld, and I am content that I have done right." These are the words of an obsessed man who has finally attained his goal.

The Untouchables is saturated with style. De Palma has always created visually interesting movies. Even those that are dramatic failures (and, unfortunately, there are a few too many of those on the director's resume) are often stylistic successes. When Capone is on screen, De Palma relies on rich, lush colors that emphasize the extravagance of the man's life. Red is everywhere, underscoring not only the man's position in Chicago's gangland royalty, but the way he is steeped in blood. In contrast, when Ness is central to the action, the pallet is simple and spartan.

One of the most memorable scenes in The Untouchables occurs near the end of the film, in Union Station. Borrowing from the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, De Palma crafts one of the most riveting 10-minute set pieces in modern cinema, elevating the tension by stages until it is nearly unbearable. There's the clock that shows the progression of time, the point-of-view shots that create a sense of claustrophobia in the cavernous station, the creeping movement of a woman lugging a baby carriage up the seemingly-endless staircase, and the shady figures that occasionally appear. All of these elements contribute to the sense of impending doom. The payoff is a perfectly escalated shootout that ends on just the right note.

Blood and gore are everywhere. None of the deaths is clean, and many feature spatter and pieces of brain. The most infamous occurs when Al Capone takes a baseball bat to the head of a disloyal member of his "family." This transpires during a formal dinner, and the sight of pooling blood (which looks almost black) on a white tablecloth is both strangely beautiful and staggeringly horrific.

Working with his production designers, De Palma has fashioned a facsimile of 1930 Chicago that few modern motion pictures have been able to match. The shot of La Salle Street, with its numerous period piece automobiles and costumed extras, is singularly effective. It appears that no expense was spared in turning back the clock more than 50 years. Another nod to the decade is that the U.S./Canada border bust features the good guys on horseback, adding a Western flavor to this sequence. Ennio Morricone's fabulous score stands out as one of the dozen best of his long and prosperous career, and is critical to establishing the mood and accompanying the action sequences.

When Sean Connery received an Oscar for his portrayal of Jimmy Malone, many critics saw it as a "lifetime achievement" award, recognizing the actor's entire body of work (much like Al Pacino's statue for Scent of a Woman). Although there's no doubting that Connery has an impressive resume, such an interpretation inadvertently denigrates his performance in The Untouchables, which is award worthy. Connery's interpretation of his character is flawless, bringing the man to three-dimensional life with a dry wit, a wellspring of street-garnered wisdom, and an underlying sense of pathos.

Then there's Robert De Niro (replacing Bob Hoskins, who was paid in full and allowed to walk when the higher profile actor became available), who plays Capone as the larger-than-life figure needed for The Untouchables to work. This is a cartoonish interpretation – a villain so black-hearted that it's impossible to root for him. Some critics have seen this as a flaw, but it's actually an asset. Let other movies paint Capone as a complex individual. De Niro's over-the-top portrayal is perfect for this context.

Going into this film, Kevin Costner had a semi-recognizable face (primarily as a result of Silverado), but this was the role that propelled him to stardom. It's not a great performance, but Costner's low-key approach is effective for the straight-as-an-arrow Ness. Costner does what he has to do: stays in the background until the end while providing the tent pole around which the film's structure can be developed. Ness is not meant to be a flamboyant or colorful hero, and a more energetic performance might have overbalanced and undermined the film's other elements.

The other two "Untouchables" are played by Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith. For Garcia, like Costner, this represented a springboard to stardom. And, like Costner, Garcia takes an understated approach to his character. In many ways, Stone is the least visible of the four team members – at least until the Union Station shootout. Character actor Smith's career didn't receive much of a boost from The Untouchables. He's effective as Oscar, and the simple irony of a pencil-pushing accountant going to battle with Al Capone (and toting a gun) provides much of the movie's humor, although, ultimately, Oscar becomes more of a tragic figure than a comedic one.

Put simply, The Untouchables is a great adventure movie, with at least a half-dozen tremendous action scenes and a script that delivers one quotable line after another. If there's one misstep that De Palma makes – and it's a small one – it's spending a little too much on Ness' home life in an attempt to use the presence of the wife and child to further humanize the protagonist. Other than that, this is a nearly perfect motion picture – an epic indulgence of spectacle and exhilaration. It is the center jewel in the director's crown. No matter how long De Palma stays in the business, he will likely never surpass what he accomplished here, telling this larger-than-life tale in larger-than-life fashion.

Untouchables, The (United States, 1987)

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith, Billy Drago
Screenplay: David Mamet
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Music: Ennio Morricone
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Ranked #59 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 1987-06-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1