- Movie Rating -

The Untouchables (1987)

| June 3, 1987

Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables is a terrific looking movie.  Everything here is in place from the Prohibition era clothes to the cars to the guns to the booze to the dames, to that good old gangland lingo provided here by David Mamet.  It has the expected battle between Eliot Ness and Al Capone, how Ness learns to break way from his by-the-book ethics and play hardball to catch the old gangster and his mob.  And yet, somehow it never comes together.  Individual scenes work but the through-line narrative feels like it’s all over the place.

Ness and Capone, played here by Kevin Costner and Robert de Niro respectively, almost don’t seem to be in the same movie.  They’re playing on different levels.  Costner’s Ness is a clean-nosed, do-gooder FBI Agent who wants to do the right thing but slowly realizes that he’s going to have to play dirty to get his man – these are dangerous times and Capone is a serious and deadly man.  The problem is that when we see Capone, he almost seems to be in a different kind of movie, like a revue of old Warner Bros. gangster movies from the 30s.  Costner meanwhile seems stuck in a recreation of the period.  I never believed that they occupied the same space.

Plus, de Niro seems curiously muted here, as if he’s playing a parody of those played by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney.  I know a bit about Capone, about how he ran his Chicago operation, made friends and eliminated all of his enemies, capped off by that rather unromantic Valentine’s gift in 1929.  Capone had a gift for organization, of cutting his cronies loose and then reeling them back in.  He used the 18th Amendment to his advantage and made himself a millionaire at a moment when the rest of the country was suffering the depression.  Unfortunately, it’s not in this movie.  De Niro stalks into a few scenes, makes a quick one-liner and then disappears from the scene.  We never really get a sense of the empire that he created and by extension the empire that Ness has to crack.

 Costner is the other problem.  I never felt that I was watching Ness, I felt as if I was watching Kevin Costner occupy a role.  He’s rather passive here.  Yes, he wants to bring Capone down but it’s all in the words, it’s never in his spirit.  There isn’t the feeling that he realizes that he’s going to have to break the law to get his man.

What glues the movie together for me is Sean Connery as an old Irish cop who knows Chicago, and by extension the mob world, like the letters in his own name.  He has a scene in a church where he explains how to get Capone to Costner that is brilliant.  I won’t spoil it.  Connery is the only person here who doesn’t seem to be playing dress-up and given a good role, we are reminded what an intense presence this actor can be, and that he has so many notes to play away from James Bond.

There’s a curiously loose quality about this version of The Untouchables.  Scenes don’t flow together and there are moments when things seem to be happening just to make things happen.  A moment of brilliance will pop up, like the one where Connery threatens a dead man in order to get a mobster to talk – the guy doesn’t know that his buddy is dead.  Those moment stand out but as a whole this movie never really came together for me.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Action