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The Untouchables

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Richard Bradford, Jack Kehoe, Brad Sullivan, Billy Drago

Review by Dragan Antulov
2½ stars out of 4

Some films are remembered for quite unexpected reasons. Few months before THE UNTOUCHABLES would come into former Yugoslavia cinemas in 1988, soundtrack album by Ennio Morricone was released in music stores. The themes from that soundtrack became very popular among music supervisors for different radio and TV shows. Almost all of those shows dealt with mounting economic and political problems of the crumbling federation, and Morricone's disturbing music corresponded with a anxious atmosphere in the eve of bloody break-up. Notably cheerful exception was a TV broadcast when the old Communist was interviewed about his past; Al Capone's theme was playing in the background, which was very subtle way for the show's creator to express their opinion about dying Communist regime.

The plot of the movie is set in dark moments of another federation which, unlike former Yugoslavia, survived hard times. The year is 1930, and America pays heavy price for its experiment with Prohibition. Illegal, yet lucrative business of bootlegging made Al Capone (Robert de Niro) undisputed leader of the Chicago underworld and most powerful man in the city. However, despite his public businessman personality, Capone keeps his supremacy by brutal violence, not caring about the lives of innocent people. After small girl died in one of such incidents, Federal government decides to stop the violence by creating special task force. The force is led by Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), Treasury Department official whose zeal is in great contrast with his inexperience in law enforcement. His debut raid on Capone's warehouse ends in embarrassing fiasco, and Ness now knows that he can't rely on notoriously corrupt local police. The rare exception among Chicago cops is old Malone (Sean Connery), who lost career because of his honesty. Ness gets the idea to create unit of few, yet capable and reliable lawmen that would battle Capone's all-powerful organisation. He and Malone recruit two more men - Treasury accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) and Chicago rookie policeman George Stone (Andy Garcia) - and they become hitting Capone's operations hard, earning the nickname 'The Untouchables' by the press.

When the film originally appeared in cinema, expectations were quite high, partly because of very effective soundtrack, partly because of Sean Connery finally getting his long-deserved "Oscar", and finally because all major critics praised creative genius of director Brian de Palma. Unfortunately, the final product was good, yet far bellow the expectations. As years went by, THE UNTOUCHABLES began fading into oblivion, and newer generations of viewers would probably have some problems in understanding its original success. Same can be said for some old viewers, especially the fans of TV series UNTOUCHABLES. The series, although based on non-fiction book by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness, was a great departure from the historic truth and offered one-dimensional picture of Prohibition-era Chicago, by confronting virtuous law enforcement supermen with soulless gangster scum. Thirty years did almost nothing to connect THE UNTOUCHABLES myth with history, and the screenplay by Pullitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet went even further from established facts.

In David Mamet's vision Eliot Ness is embodiment of all American virtues - upholding law, dedicated to the job, loving husband and father. Kevin Costner, with his Gary Cooper image, was perfect for that role and it shouldn't surprise anyone that THE UNTOUCHABLES launched his career of major movie star. Unfortunately, Robert de Niro wasn't so good in the role of his archenemy and despite all his efforts (even buying and wearing the identical underwear that Capone used to wear) he fails to capture the true spirit of Capone on screen. Instead of vicious gangster, we got a bad caricature of Benito Mussolini. The notorious bludgeoning scene, obviously incorporated to give Capone's character some viciousness, doesn't improve such impressions. The only really developed character in the movie is Malone, brilliantly played by Sean Connery. Motive of policemen who must break the law in order to uphold it, hinted by Mamet's script, would probably be unnoticed in the movie if it weren't for Connery.

Director de Palma, on the other hand, didn't care much about the characters and story. For him, this was just another exercise in mannerist film-making and another victory for those who prefer style over substance in art. The movie looks great, thanks to production designs of Patrizia von Brandenstein and William A. Elliott, costumes by Giorgio Armani and Stephen H. Burum's photography and all the other that took great care to capture the period details. Yet, most impressive and most memorable part of the film is the famous Showdown at the Steps scene, de Palma's intentional homage to Einstenstein's BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. The scene is visually stunning, de Palma's manages to go over the top, by featuring couple of sailors only to make his reference even more obvious. All in all, THE UNTOUCHABLES can be seen as conventional and satisfying period thriller, and failed work of art in the same time.

Copyright 1998 Dragan Antulov

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