The Untouchables (1987)

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Review by Luke of Oracle of Film

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Plot: When Federal agent, Eliot Ness (Costner) realises his case against crime lord, Al Capone (De Niro) is going nowhere, he assembles a team of cops prepared to go outside the law to catch him.

When looking back at the classic movies, the genre that really sticks out for me is Noir. Noir movies are important for American cinema and often become the landmark films of long ago (Double Indemnity, Chinatown, LA Confidential). Many films look up to the clever direction and writing of these classics. It took me a while to get around to checking it out, but The Untouchables is up there with the best of them.

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I was a little daunted at the prospect that this is essentially a true story. We all know the story of the infamous Al Capone, who is up there with real life villains like Babyface and dare I say it, Jack the Ripper. There will be hundreds of movies of the character (see 2013’s Gangster Squad). However, although the irony of the cops catching Capone out on taxes is an amusing thought and a nice concept of justice beating the bad guys fairly, it doesn’t really make much of a movie. Although it keeps to that theme and that side of the story doesn’t waver, De Palma lets the action side of things run its natural course, making this an exciting, nail-biting thriller. I expected a slow, thoughtful Noir biopic with great acting, but little substance. What I got was, for want of a better explanation, the Avengers Assemble of the 80s. Fast, explosive and cinematic genius from every angle.

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Kevin Costner is great as the stereotypical Noir hero. He is the cop that wants to play by the rules, but slowly realises that it’s no way to wage a war with a man like Al Capone. His transformation throughout the film is interesting and well-played. I am not going to lie; I am not a massive fan of Costner. Luckily, the role isn’t too demanding. He plays it straight and lets De Palma tell his story with silences rather than lines. The trick with a conflicted character like Ness is to imply the drama, rather than full-on acting it. There isn’t really too many totally emotional moments, but you can always tell there is an internal struggle, behind his eyes. And for me that is one of the true trademarks of a Noir hero. That isn’t to say that Costner couldn’t handle the dialogue. I was kind of waiting for him to trip up on a line, but he never did, always keeping a control on his character.

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No one really remembers Robert De Niro for The Untouchables, mainly because it is like remembering Jeremy Renner for Avengers Assemble. He is just one of the cogs in a large machine that is this masterpiece. Maybe it is also because Al Capone feels like a mix-and-matched De Niro stereotype. Capone is grotesque, he is cruel and he has a fat cat politician charm. Sometimes it could even argued that it is too much. It feels like it is slightly too try-hard, going for cinematic greatness. The performance really is great, but there are certain beats that fall flat and you end up wishing you were watching a more toned-down version of De Niro, like ‘Casino’ or ‘Godfather’. At the very least, it cements the idea that we should hate this character.

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Let’s talk about the dialogue. Sometimes it was amazing. I am surprised I haven’t heard any of this lines quoted more often, because they are some ones worthy of standing next to ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ or ‘Leave it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.’ Robert De Niro is treated like royalty with his script, stealing show-stopping monologues, probably to make up for the fact that he doesn’t have as much screen time as his co-stars. Sean Connery also has some cracking one-liners – the kind you could only trust with someone from the James Bond school of acting. Kevin Costner has some great quips, usually after killing an unsavoury thug. However, then these great scripted moments are harshly contrasted with some lines straight from a cheesy cop film. The final scene as the heroes contemplate the action is full of buddy cop lines. However, they never feel stupid here. The only reason I can think of to explain why these lines suddenly work is the fact that those lines are earned. While in cheesier movies, those lines convey the serious and emotional nature of a scene, The Untouchables earns that emotion and then uses the lines. It’s not a cheap shot at epic cinema; it’s an elegant finishing touch on a poignant character arc.

The direction was also brilliant. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment, because there were so many different techniques of De Palma’s I enjoyed. Usually, with a director, there are certain themes you look forward to. Quentin Tarantino is good with actors, Carpenter is good with tension. De Palma pulls off everything. The scene in the train station was done well, because De Palma took his time to make us momentarily suspect everyone wandering around the building. The scene where the assassins come after Malone is beautifully shot, milking every drop of tension from the moment. Then there is the bloody violence, always shot stunningly. Most people talk about this movie, because of Robert De Niro’s enthusiasm with a baseball bat. Usually I would dedicate an entire paragraph of a review discussing each scene, but because De Palma crams them all into every scene of the movie I would never be able to get through them all.

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Maybe the thing I love most about ‘The Untouchables’ is the way it cements itself into the classic Noir box. The tone, the costume department, the soundtrack. It doesn’t milk the Noir element like some neo-Noir movies, like ‘Chinatown’ and definitely ‘Sin City’ do, but it subtly adds the right touches. Anyone that has played the Xbox or PS3 game, LA Noire, will notice several trademarks that have been borrowed from this movie. The chase on the rooftops could also be one of my new, most memorable Noir moments.

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18 thoughts on “The Untouchables (1987)

  1. Great write up Luke. It’s been so long since I seen this but I remember absolutely loving every minute of it. It’s a fantastic film and definitely one of DePalma’s best. It’s just a shame that DeNiro doesn’t get a bit more screen time as he made a good Al Capone.

  2. The scene in the train station and the scene where Malone chases the assassin out of his home only to be gunned down… *gasp*! I catch myself sitting on the very edge of my seat every single time I watch those scenes. I love this movie, and you have done it a great justice with your review. Excellent work!

  3. Good review Luke. The style of De Palma’s mixes well with the material and creates a fun, tense thriller worthy of paying attention to. However, I was a bit disappointed by how hammy and under-used De Niro was as Capone, aka, the role of a lifetime for that guy. Oh well, at least we had Sean Connery stealing the spotlight instead.

  4. Agreed – every scene feels dynamic, every scene works to develop suspense, plot or character. This is a great flick, and probably my favorite from De Palma, at least of those I’ve seen.

    Great review!

  5. Nice review. This is one of my favourite films, I think it’s one of De Niro’s best roles…like a panto villain at times but oozes pure menace at others. Good point about the station scene, I really want to watch that again now to see how it is set up. I also love the scene at the cabin on the Canadian border. Morricone’s music always gets me at that point!

  6. Pingback: The Untouch-Ables: The Review | Oracle of Film

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