The Untouchables (1987)
The Untouchables (1987)

Genre: Crime Drama and Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 59 min.

Release Date: June 3rd, 1987 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Brian De Palma Actors: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Richard Bradford, Jack Kehoe, Billy Drago, Patricia Clarkson, Brad Sullivan

 


 

A

snazzy piano tune and drum beat (by the great Ennio Morricone, no less, who later adds perfect saxophone riffs to the equation) kick off “The Untouchables,” a modernized telling of an older tale of cops and robbers – or, more specifically, Feds and gangsters. It’s impressively both artistic and exciting, successfully weaving biographical characterizations with fictionalized sequences of adventure to become more than any of its broad yet archetypal genre components. And although the film’s signature, climactic, slow-motion showdown in a train station – an homage to “Battleship Potempkin” – is a bit overwrought, the polish of the cinematography and the finesse of the storytelling is evident in nearly every other moment of this Oscar-winning contemporary classic.

It’s 1930 and Prohibition has turned Chicago into a war zone. Gangs compete for the multi-billion-dollar illegal alcohol business, using hand grenades and Tommy guns and the governance of kingpin Al Capone (Robert De Niro). His thugs, including Frank Nitti (a bad guy who conspicuously wears all white, played by Billy Drago), will stop at nothing to push their products – going so far as to blow up the businesses and people who refuse to buy from them. And collateral damage, such as a ten-year-old girl, are of no concern to these ruthless brutes.

But an officer of the Treasury, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), is the man to put a stop to the criminal mayhem. Starting by raiding an enormous shipment of Canadian whiskey – which turns out to be paper umbrellas – Ness quickly learns that it won’t be easy depending on his informants or on his team of policemen, who are even faster at ridiculing Ness’ righteous attitude toward upholding the law (he’s in a perpetual struggle not to become the very thing he intends to put away) and his crusading heroism in the face of insurmountable odds (a problem no one really wants addressed). To adequately tackle Capone’s sizable operation, he’ll need help from unsanctioned sources, and so he constructs a small, trustworthy group, including Bureau accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), sharpshooter rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia), and beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery) – untouchable men who can’t be bribed, coerced, or scared into looking the other way.

The script by David Mamet is serious, funny, dramatic, and action-packed at all the right times, infusing a wide array of emotions and historical facets into a period piece gangster flick that, thanks to these uncommon components, transcends the inherent limitations of the genre and subject matter (in general, director Brian De Palma’s films are more effective when he’s not also the writer). Brooding, voyeuristic stakeouts transition into thrilling shootouts; a ritzy dinner turns into a violent bloodbath; and a courtroom procedural deviates into a cathartic moment of vigilante revenge. Despite the carnage, there’s a lighter, witty tone to the entire picture, such as when Malone plays the bad cop during a not-so-routine interrogation. But there’s also an edge and a poignancy to the perseverance, the camaraderie, and the sacrifices. With sharp editing (an intercutting of an opera performance with an officer’s untimely demise is a nice touch, though elsewhere the picture reverts to an overzealousness with gore) and a superb ensemble cast (as good as Costner is, he’s easily surpassed by his supporting players), “The Untouchables” is one of those rare, continually entertaining, surprisingly moving, high-octane, gangland epics.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10