The Untouchables Slide

In some circles, extensive film knowledge is social capital. Keep that in mind when watching Brian De Palma’s star-spattered 1987 film, The Untouchables. Though many viewers find the Chicago-centric gangsters vs. coppers film near comic in style, one can hardly deny the opening credits read like a dream team devised by some late-80s pop-culture aficionados. If this entry in the Netflix Friday Night series somehow fails to move you to watch, feel free to insert these opinions into the next quasi-highbrow debate in which the de Palma oeuvre is under discussion. And don’t forget to sip a Manhattan while you do so; you’ll appear much more impressive that way.

url-1The Untouchables is based on the autobiography of the same name by T-Man Eliot Ness (played by a strikingly young and earnest Kevin Costner), the man most famous for throwing Al Capone, our favorite American gangster, in the slammer. And that’s exactly what this film is about: a presumably wholesome, inexperienced treasury agent, looking to fight crime for the sake of protecting the nation against liquor. Because Capone’s (Robert De Niro, in a role without bite) operation includes bribes to ensure both high- and low-ranking city officials aid his business ventures, Ness handpicks his own team to ensure loyalty to the law. Known as “The Untouchables,” (Ghost Ship moment, anyone?) this group of handpicked lawmen is beyond the reach of criminal influence: they are dedicated to the law.

The entire film chronicles Ness’ pursuit of Capone, but the plot is hardly the most interesting aspect of De Palma’s film. Viewers will get the most out of The Untouchables when they watch the film with meta-awareness. It is rare that one film can bring together so many masters of the art: the mysterious De Palma directs; the phenomenal Ennio Morricone composes; the sharp David Mamet provides the screenplay; the perennial Stephen H. Burum is the cinematographer; and Giorgio Armani provides the wardrobe. Talk about an A-Team.

Any fan of De Palma will recognize the seemingly effortless but deliberate air of tension the director brings to each of his projects. One scene midway through the film will have you up in arms over the safety of a child nestled in a pram in the middle of gun fight, especially because of one particularly haunting scene early in the film in which a young girl is brutally blown to pieces. But those are the details that De Palma wants the viewer to notice; though any viewer would correctly wonder why, if he meant to make a point of the mindless violence of the prohibition era gangster scene, De Palma’s choice of antagonist falls so flat. De Niro’s interpretation of Capone is reliably De Niro—which is to say the performance is solid, if light—but the depiction of Capone in The Untouchables feels strangely out of place in a film about Capone. De Palma’s film sets the stage for what could have been an electric and—considering the real-life history—historically antagonistic collision of forces, but the components never fall into place. One cannot help but think The Untouchables would have benefited from the kind of plot device that omits the main antagonist completely, a la Bill in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, rather than delivering him on a lukewarm platter.

Though one of the greatest composers in the history of cinema, Morricone’s score delves sometimes into the absurd, threatening to throw the viewer out of the diegesis of the film and into the plot of a drug-induced 80s music video sequence directed by De Palma himself. Morricone’s score is right for some movie, somewhere, but probably not this one. Though nominated for an Academy Award, the score is as hit-and-miss as is De Palma’s directing: sometimes striking a home-run, delivering gorgeous and believable cityscapes, and sometimes a complete miss, sharply changing tone whenever Ness’s family is involved. Viewers are aware early on that Ness is supposed to be perceived as a naïve newcomer in this world of harsh Chicago gangland, but the score and the directing urgently beat this concept home, past the point when Ness has learned the “street” ways of Chicago.

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Arguably the most entertaining aspect of the film is James Bond’s Sean Connery’s turn as Officer Jim Malone. The Irish beat cop initially crosses paths with our protagonist when Ness feels out of his league after an embarrassingly public gaffe while on the hunt for Capone. Malone’s “This is Chicago, son” attitude later inspires Ness’s assembly of The Untouchables; he is the man who knows the gritty truths of the Chicago underground and is brash enough to use those ways against the mobsters that control the city.

Malone teaches Ness that not every move he makes in his assault on Capone’s crime enterprise can be above board. The film benefits from this change in pace. Strangely, Connery never attempts an Irish accent, presumably under the impression that Americans can’t tell the difference between his famous Scottish burl and what Malone’s accent should be, but that assumption is forgiven over the course of the film as he displays relentless charm and pragmatism in the face of an opponent worthy of all he has to offer. Malone is best friend and father figure to Ness, representing and shirking all the conceptions of the aged police force. Connery understandably won an Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Malone, but you’ll forgive me if I think you could throw away all his great work on the film, left only this scene, and he’d still have won the Oscar.

Cineastes will also rejoice to rediscover the talent that is Andy Garcia (last memorably seen in 2009’s City Island and Wen Jiang’s segment of New York, I Love You). One of the four members of The Untouchables, Garcia plays Italian-American Agent George Stone (previously Giuseppe Petri, before a cautious name change), a hothead sharpshooter fresh out of the police academy. Unerringly loyal, and always there when needed, Garcia’s character doesn’t speak much, but offers an appreciated air of youth to an otherwise aged cast (Costner, though young, is a family man). Stone also serves to introduce the viewers to the new breed of lawman; where Ness started with every intention of catching criminals by following the law to a tee, Stone enters into law enforcement surrounded by a “break the rules” mentality. (That sentiment is supposed to make the everyman feel safer.)

But don’t let my criticisms fool you: The Untouchables is a thoroughly enjoyable film: its quirks make it feel timeless. When one takes a meta-cognitive step back, every criticism seems deliberately placed to emphasize different points throughout the film. The music is out of place, much like Ness feels early in the film. Beside the immutably charming performance by Connery, the other characters are mostly one-note, but so was the mission at hand: put a stop to Capone, no matter the cost. Like all great De Palma films, the violence is shocking, satisfying, and over the top.

A perfect choice for a Netflix Friday Night, don’t you think?