The Untouchables Review

The Untouchables is a 1987 crime drama written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma. The film is based on the true account of the main character Elliot Ness, who gathered together a group to form a vigilante squad to fight Al Capone. Sean Connery won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film.

In prohibition New York City, Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is fed up with being unable to catch Al Capone (Robert De Niro) inside the confines of the law. He calls upon Jim Malone (Sean Connery), a beat cop with a nasty edge, to help him gather a small group of me to fight Capone without limitations or rules. As they stop more and more of Capone's operations, things become more and more dangerous and Elliot is pushed to the edge.

The setup and execution is a pretty standard mob movie fare, though with the added twist that it was based on true events. While this bit of trivia is interesting, it kind of took something out of the film for me. Whenever movies are based on true events it sucks a bit of the tension out of the proceedings, because you know SOMEBODY had to be alive to transcribe the events. At that point, I know for a fact that one or more of the characters, probably the main included, is going to survive the ordeal.

The characters are nothing special, but they are likable, at least. Ness is a righteous, do-it-by-the-book agent, but not in an irritating boy scout way. Instead, he seems like a guy you'd want to be your roll model, who does the right thing not out of a sense of self-righteousness, but because he wants to do the right thing. Malone is also fun, being the dirty vigilante to Ness' good hearted super hero. He's the experienced one who shows the inexperienced Ness to the dark deeds that need to be done in the face of villainy. Seeing the relationship grow between them is nice to watch, as they become friends rather than just tentative allies. However, I feel like they don't become friends quickly enough. In the middle of the film I still felt like they were really cold and detached towards each other, like they wouldn't really shed a tear if somebody died in the line of duty. This changes in the last third of the movie, but I think that's way to late to develop strong friendships between characters who have been standoffish towards each other until this point. Also, half of the Untouchables themselves go underdeveloped throughout the entirety of the film. George and Oscar don't have much to them other than "the angry, rebellious one" and "the nerd" respectively and don't really have that much dimension until, again, near the end of the film.

The pacing is fine for the most part aside from two major problems I have. One is that in the transition from second to third act there's a massive time jump without letting the audience know anything had happened. The only reason I knew there'd been any time passed at all is because Ness had a baby when his wife had only been pregnant a few scenes before. Secondly, the film goes on a bit longer than I think it should've. They catch Al Capone's accountant in a spectacular gun fight in the middle of a train station and it feels like the climax of the film, so you're thinking "Ok, we'll see a Ness cleaning out his office, text will tell us Capone got jail time and then it ends with Ness walking off into the distance, right?" Wrong. The film instead decides to show Capone's trial and the drama that occurred during the proceedings. While I can't say showing this was a bad decision, I still think either this or the scene in the translation should've been cut because with both of them included you're left with what feels like two rising actions and two climaxes, making the pacing feel a bit awkward.

The screenplay is barely worth complimenting on; it's not a stylized as The Godfather or particularly noticeable at all. However, I think the highest compliment I can give it is that it sounds natural, like actual conversations these human beings would have and not stylized, over the top versions of normal conversations like in Quentin Tarantino movies.

Aside from The Godfather mob movies all seem to look exactly the same in terms of aesthetics. This is mostly because every one of them is stuck with the time period when crime was most rampant: the 1930s and beginning of the 40s. This means that all of the cities look dreary, grey, grimy and generally messy, the cars are all the same make and model, everybody's either wearing a suit or dress (there's no casual in-between) and everybody's either wielding a tommy gun, six-shooter pistol or shotgun.

In every single department of props, costume and set design the film doesn't do anything wrong, but it doesn't do anything above the bar (other than in a few places, but we'll come back to that). It just did nothing to stand out from the crowd.

However, there is one part of the film that sticks out and that is the very first shot of the film. Everything about the shot composition here is perfect. It's an eagle eye shot of a very bright red room, with Al Capone being tended to a team of barbers and shoeshiners on the left side, a group of people on the right and an empty space for the introductory text in the not-quite-middle. You can tell immediately that your eyes are supposed to be on Capone because the group of grooming people are attending to him and the group of reporters on the other side of the room are all staring at him. Plus, the part of the room Capone's in is a bit circular in shape, so it helps establish who's the focus.

I have no problem with Kevin Conroy's acting, but while sharing the same room, or just the same movie, with people like Robert De Niro and Sean Connery he's practically a non-entity. I don't really understand how Connery won the Oscar that year, because there's nothing really remarkable about his performance, especially his awful Irish accent that wouldn't fool a baby. Even though De Niro looks nothing like Al Capone he still does a good job portraying the character (though I can't speak for how well they adapted the actual personality of the real life gangster). However, the entire time I was watching it I couldn't help but think of De Niro's performance as somebody else doing an impression of De Niro playing Al Capone. In other words, I've come to see De Niro as a walking parody of himself. I don't necessarily blame him for this, but I blame the public for taking this talented, dignified actor and making him the butt of so many jokes and shamefully bad impressions.

The cinematography can get a bit strange, as the director seems to be fond of low angle shots that don't mean anything. For example, in the courthouse, Ness is confronting a man who had a gun in the courthouse. However, the whole time the camera is looking at the conversation from the bottom looking up for no reason. Neither of them are in any position of power over the other, so it couldn't be portraying that and there's no extremely short person looking up at them, so why shoot it at this weird angle? Why not just shoot it from over the shoulder like a normal person?

The editing is often quick, barely giving time for the scene to sink in before going on to the next one. This does keep the pace up, though I feel like if they had let the scene go on for just a little longer it wouldn't have felt so jarring.

There are also some weird (bad) sound editing moments where you can clearly tell they switched to the soundtrack from a completely different take. I don't know why they kept them like this instead of refining the volume and quality just the tiniest bit because if I were the director it would've driven me crazy.

The music is courtesy of the great Ennio Morricone, though you wouldn't know it from just listening to it. Maybe it's just because I see The Good/Bad/Ugly theme as his masterpiece and anything that doesn't sound like it isn't Morricone, but I feel like even the biggest fan of his music wouldn't recognize it. However, that's not to say it's bad, even though the main theme is the only memorable track in the whole film. The vibe it gives off is one full of mystery, intrigue and danger, which sets the perfect note for the entire film.

Summary: The Untouchables wasn't at all what I was expecting after A) all the hype set around it and B) my experience with gangster films. First, I was expecting it to be a lot more intense and personal than it was and secondly I expected it to be a lot darker and depressing by the end. It's not the worst gangster movie, hell it's not even a bad movie in general, but it can't stand up to the intense drama of Godfather Part II or the pulse pounding intrigue of The Departed, so there's no real reason to go out of your way to see it.



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