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The Untouchables (1987)

by on 2012/05/17

“Do you really want to get him? You see what I’m saying? What are you prepared to do?”

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Right around the time he was giving unpopular interviews to Barbara Walters, I endeared myself to classmates imitating Sean Connery’s Untouchables speech.

“You want to get Capone?” I’d demand, lisping, sputtering, and burring with gusto. “Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He puts one of your men in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!”

I flogged that Oscar-bait scene for a whole lot of attention, long before I was of legal age to watch the feature film. Well, it was a fun time back then, and it sure holds up a generation later.

Coming off the recent Silverado, Kevin Costner here continues in headlining a string of successes soon to include Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves. As Eliot Ness, he joins Connery (Dr. No), Andy Garcia (Dead Again), and Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti). Together, as “the Untouchables” task force, they seek to bring down Robert De Niro’s (Taxi Driver) Al Capone in 1930s Chicago.

I’ve seen a lot of flak about this effort and don’t understand it. A good story, based on true-ish events, engagingly written, beguilingly acted, and visually compelling. Writer David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), the aforementioned cast, and director Brian De Palma (Carrie) have crafted a work of enduring — even increasing — value, which stands tall either independently, or against the original series.

Sure, Costner is no Robert Stack. His Ness is far more vulnerable, but that’s not weakness, just difference. He epitomizes speaking softly and carrying a big stick. The irony of Smith’s accountant seeding the endgame throughout the plot is funny. Garcia emanates an incredible presence, despite a relatively small role. Connery . . . well, see my introduction. And De Niro? He’s his best rabid scenery-chewing self. Present in only a handful of appearances, he makes them worth the entire screening, particularly with his “kind word and a gun” and “enthusiasms” speeches.

It’s not all showy fireworks, but solid attention to detail too. European immigrant tensions bubble under the surface. Period props like soap and cigarettes decorate the world. Unusual angles catch our eye, including cinematic referencing. (Hello Battleship Potemkin, I’m looking at you!)

Composer Ennio Morricone (Fistful of Dollars) helps cement this cinephile feel, adding an original score reminiscent of his Spaghetti Western history. Several themes recur, tied to specific characters, and all are strong and memorable. At times their interpretation borders on “over-majestic” for my tastes but are otherwise appropriately raw and powerful. My only true complaint here involves the Al Capone motif, which twice plays through an orchestration which sounds anachronistic, as if a 1980s bells-and-brass sampler were attempting a James Bond song.

There’s really not much to say, otherwise — oh wait, poor compositing! — because The Untouchables would be solid, entertaining, and poignant, even if I didn’t already love it. Given his great results with this adaptation, I’m not surprised De Palma was offered the Mission: Impossible job. I just wish I could be as complimentary of that as I am of this.

* * * *

Rated 18A (Canada) / R (United States)

119 minutes

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