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.
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."
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.
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.
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).
NEXT REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)