The Untouchables (1987)


So I couldn’t help but wonder at one point in this movie if the cops who get moved into Agent Ness’s treasury division get paid extra money for their increased risk. It would only make sense right?

If you get hung up on small details like these you’re not going to enjoy Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. The movie avoids things like historical accuracy or authentic police procedures in favor of delivering a stylistic action/crime thriller. And that part is done brilliantly. De Palma once again shows off his impeccable directing chops with some truly exhilirating sequences of action and suspense.

The showdown inside a train station, for instance, is a masterclass in suspenseful action film making. He sets the stage beautifully: simultaneously he gives us a good feel for the geography of the upcoming shootout while providing suspense in the form of a mother moving her child ever so slowly up a flight of stairs. The subsequent action lasts all of ten seconds in real time, but is shot in slow motion and because De Palma has painstakingly set up the locations of the various bad guys it is easily immersive.

Kevin Costner is Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), an agent of the treasury department (I wasn’t aware the treasury department had a law enforcement division?) who is tasked to clean the streets of Chicago of the bootlegged booze coming from Al Capone’s gang. His initial efforts are thwarted by dirty police officers in his own ranks, so he elicits the titular set of untouchable officers totally clean of any corruption. The film’s title could also refer to Capone (Robert De Niro) himself, seeing is so powerful he is basically untouchable by law enforcement.

The acting here is decent enough. De Niro is the standout for me as a brutally violent version of Al Capone. Every look at his face feels like staring down the barrel of a gun. The man oozes brutality and we are shown that first hand when he beats one of his subordinates brains in with a baseball bat. This is a man that can and will do anything to keep his empire afloat, including blowing up little girls.

The ever so charismatic Sean Connery plays Malone, the street smart cop who has been around the block a few times and therefore is aware of the corruption of Chicago. He doesn’t have a lot to work with but is still able to make his character charming and likable.

The same cannot be said for Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness, who is archetypal to a fault. He’s a man who has a great deal of respect for the law, even going so far as to implore the division of police officers assigned to him to restrain from touching any alcohol despite the ready availability of the substance. Costner plays him straight, and try as he might he doesn’t do much to make the stiff character Eliot Ness likable.

The central conflict of this film seems to be the price of justice. Ness wants justice for Capone, but is initially unwilling to step outside the confines of the law to accomplish his goals. This begins to change as he learns from the elder Malone. If he wants true justice he’s going to have to leave his comfort zone. This takes effect in various ways: from their initial warrant-less seizure of a warehouse stocked to the brim with booze to Eliot eventually allowing a man to fall to a brutal death as an act of revenge.

I have to say I’m not sure if I agree with the message the film is trying to send here. Maybe a cop should be willing to work outside the lines occasionally, but to go so far as to indiscriminately murder someone to satiate a thirst for vengeance? I don’t know, maybe I’m too bleeding heart.

In any case the sets, costumes, and music (by the always amazing Ennio Morricone) are all fantasic and really nail the look and feel of thirties Chicago (if it did really look like that, I can’t really say I wasn’t there). De Palma is able to engage in some of his signatory slick directing while depicting the opulent lifestyles of the gangsters or the many action scenes. As always in a De Palma flick there’s a chase scene that is done absolutely brilliantly and is one of the highlights of the entire movie.

Overall this is a good action film that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of brainpower. The characters, their conversations and stories aren’t above cliche and that keeps the film from reaching its true potential. Watch for the style: a tremendous looking film, but you can go ahead and tune out just about everything else. You won’t miss much.


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