OVERRATED: The Untouchables (1987)

The Untouchables (USA, 1987)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia

Hollywood has always loved outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Bonnie and Clyde, and the outlaws that it has most consistently loved are gangsters. Gangsters tick all the boxes for classic Hollywood antagonists: they're stylish, dangerous, well-spoken, they combine history and nostalgia for the 'good old days' in the old country with weapons and schemes that are quintessentially modern. Quentin Tarantino was right when he called gangster films "parodies of the American dream": they hold up a mirror to American society and its ideals, letting it either question its very foundations or revel in its dark underbelly.
It's ironic, therefore, that despite decades of trying, Hollywood has never really done justice to Al Capone. Numerous directors have tried, including trash maestro Roger Corman, but Capone has always worked best as an incidental character in other people's stories. The Untouchables may enjoy a better reputation that Corman's work, thanks in part to Sean Connery's preposterous Oscar win. But it's still an immensely flawed beast which is watchable and empty in equal measure.
Part of the reason for the lack of a definitive on-screen Capone may because he has become the cliché of the Hollywood gangster. When Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat were creating Sherlock, they deliberately steered away from making their version of Moriarty identical to those in the original stories; they reasoned that, since he was the first supervillain, to whom every subsequent supervillain owes a debt, he had become the cliché and wouldn't scare audiences as he originally had done. Capone, the argument goes, has become a caricature, a parody of what American gangsterism means, so that any attempt to present him seriously could be unintentionally risible.
If we buy this line of reasoning, one of the greatest failings of The Untouchables is that it fails to deal with this problem. Casting Robert de Niro may have seemed like a no-brainer, given his brilliance in The Godfather Part II as the younger Don Corleone. But the part came at a time when de Niro was tired of playing gangsters, and had sought to diversify his portfolio through roles in Brazil and The Mission. What we get feels like a bizarre self-parody of de Niro's past roles, complete with his trademark repetition of lines - the 'I wan' 'im dead!" rant after the border raid stands in for the famous "are you talkin' to me?" speech in Taxi Driver.
De Niro's creative decisions aside, this is also partially down to David Mamet's screenplay, which is muddled and conflicted. The film cannot decide whether it wants to be a style-over-substance, silly gangster film, with all the stock characters and plenty of shoot-outs, or a serious drama about having to go above and beyond the law to bring someone to justice. De Niro is indulged during his scenes and comes across as more comical than threatening, with the score telegraphing to the audience how to feel in the baseball bat scene. When he's not on screen, Mamet tries to make things more macho, but here he is undone by another bad performance: Kevin Costner.
While de Niro is coasting (and Connery is largely playing himself), Costner is the dictionary definition of trying too hard. His critics like to assume that he became overly serious as a result of the Oscar success of Dances with Wolves, but the truth is that he's always been a wooden and limited actor. His performance as Eliot Ness is drab and dreary, having neither the presence nor the moral ambiguity of, say, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, which is what the role calls for. He spends the whole film with one facial expression (somewhere between bored and "but my Dad thinks I'm good"), and his line readings are flat and unconvincing. In the words of Sheila Benson, writing in The Los Angeles Times, "to Mamet and De Palma, goodness and dullness seem inseparable."
Admittedly, however, not all of The Untouchables' failings can be pinned on Mamet, Costner or de Niro. Some of the blame must lie with Brian De Palma, whose work from Scarface onwards is an emphatic case of style over substance. Where Martin Scorsese or William Friedkin would have properly marshalled their actors, building an intensity with the characters first and foremost, De Palma always seems more concerned with constructing incredibly stylish death scenes or paying homage to his favourite directors. Tipping one's hat to Battleship Potemkin does not in itself make the train station showdown exciting, and the use of slow-motion is less effective at building tension than the quiet minutes leading up to it.
Throughout his career, De Palma has always been fascinated by death; he likes putting his characters through the mill, as his idol Alfred Hitchcock did before him, and staging beautiful demises for them complete with razor blades, guns and plenty of stage blood. The train station offers a lot in this regard, with carefully positioned squibs, broken glass and blood practically oozing from henchman's mouths.
But the ne plus ultra of this is the gunning down of Malone, which is every bit as drawn out and ridiculous as Alan Rickman's pantomime death scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves four years later. We start with a protracted nod to Hallowe'en in the use of first-person steadicam, and end with one of the most contrived farewells of two characters in Hollywood history; no man, riddled with that many machine gun bullets, could have survived that long, let alone been in a position to relay such a vital detail.
In amongst all this indulgence and over-abundance of style, there are a number of qualities which make The Untouchables watchable. The first and biggest of these is the historical quirk of how Capone was caught, through tax evasion. The film does lose focus from time to time, particularly in the scenes with a high body count, but we do keep coming back to the theme of how the smallest error or indiscretion can lead to a person's downfall - something that's as true of Capone as it is of the police officers who allowed Frank Nitti to infiltrate their ranks.
The most interesting characters in The Untouchables are the minor players on both sides of the divide. Charles Martin Smith (who was very good in Starman) deftly conveys someone who is out of his depth but driven by the need to do good, turning his own skills to the advantage of the team. Andy Garcia's character is a little underwritten, but he takes what chances he can to portray a hot-head trying to turn his life around - ample preparation for his later role in The Godfather Part III. And Billy Drago, as a heavily fictionalised Frank Nitti, is one of the coolest, most underrated villains of the 1980s. Not only does he look tremendous, but his icy demeanour and playful sense of humour make his evildoing for Capone resonate all the more (his death, on the other hand, is riddled with disappointing wire work).
The Untouchables is a watchable but ultimately empty experience which has neither the substance nor the discipline of De Palma at his best. Lumbered by a problematic script and unintentionally silly performances by its main leads, it provides just enough drama to keep an audience interested while never getting to grips with its subject matter in a sufficiently deep manner. There are many Oscar-winning films which are far, far worse, but there's very little about this film which is truly untouchable.


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