The Prohibition-era “fight” between gangster Al Capone and G-man Eliot Ness over the streets of Chicago is the stuff of legend. For this reason, director Brian De Palma’s next big mob-themed follow-up to “Scarface” is quite a challenge. Capone is an enigma of sorts: the closest thing to a tall tale that history has to offer. Casting Robert De Niro was an excellent choice in attempt to do the character justice, but “The Untouchables,” as entertaining and suspenseful as it is, never fully captures the tone and magnitude of Capone and 1930s Chicago.
Feds and gangsters flick would be a better way to describe “The Untouchables” than organized crime drama. Anyone expecting a Godfather film or “Scarface” should lower those expectations to the level of ’30s-themed action movie. Kevin Costner stars as Ness, leading a team of feds called The Untouchables who decide to go straight after the mob. They consist of an accountant (Charles Martin Smith) a rookie who’s a good shot (Andy Garcia) and the wise veteran (Sean Connery in an Oscar-winning role).
For a mostly fictitious account of Capone’s arrest, you’d think De Palma would pull out all the stops and that his film would glamorize the heck out of the mob and juice up the story to make it as cool as possible. He does a lot of nice aerial shots like the very beginning and the whole cast has lots of fun with guns, but it’s the characters that feel a bit cold. Costner is just okay as Ness. Yes, his character is supposed to be a moral by-the-books type who eventually embraces the slightly less legal means of getting the job done because the ends justify the means, but he could us a bit more flavor. You do like him though by the end of the film at the least.
I don’t know what Connery does that well to earn an Oscar. I think the Academy was like most people with regards to Connery in the ’80s: smitten every time he shows up on screen without a license to kill in tow. Malone is an ideal part being that he’s wise, skilled and also reckless — and David Mamet also gives him the film’s best lines — but there’s nothing that suggests he’s more than a likable character mold.
The best scene in “The Untouchables” can be looked at in one of two ways: either as a fantastic modern ode to a classic war film (the silent Russian film “The Battleship Potemkin”) or as “well that was great, but it wasn’t original.” I’m somewhere in between. The train station stairs make a beautiful backdrop for the firefight that’s not unlike the final scene of “Scarface,” and De Palma’s slowing down of the action makes it all the more enjoyable, but there’s a lingering sense of wanting something truly one-of-a-kind.
What Mamet’s script does best other than good action fodder is provide a sense of whether or not someone is really untouchable, whether or not the law truly protects anyone. Capone lived above the law for so long and Ness loses a ton of men in his restless pursuit, having to bend the law at times in order to continue it. Capone’s arrest does suggest that we all have to answer sometime when we don’t govern ourselves by a set of principles.
The Untouchables (1987)
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: David Mamet (screenplay), Oscar Fraley, Eliot Ness (book)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery