Dick Tracy (1990) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and sensuality
Running time: 103 min.
Cast: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Charlie Korsmo, Glenne Headley, Madonna, William Forsythe, Dustin Hoffman, Charles Durning, Mandy Patinkin, Paul Sorvino, R.G. Armstrong, Dick Van Dyke, Seymour Cassel
Cameo: Charles Fleischer, Kathy Bates, Catherine O'Hara, Henry Silva, James Caan, Frank Campanella, Michael J. Pollard
Director: Warren Beatty
Screenplay: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr. (based on the comic strip created by Chester Gould)
Following on the heels of the ravenously successful Batman, director-star Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait, Bonnie and Clyde) gives us another crime-fighting detective from around the same era, full of stylish artwork, sets, and a score by Danny Elfman (Midnight Run, Beetlejuice). It's somewhat to Beatty's credit that his film manages to still distinguish itself from the movie that opened up the possibility of it being made, but at the same time, it still feels about as representative of the style of the Tim Burton flick as much as it is that of the Chester Gould creation upon which it is based. What it doesn't have in a gripping storyline it makes up for with star power and a memorable visual dynamic that sees bold use of the four-color comic scheme to all of the wardrobe, props, vehicles, buildings and lighting. You may come away liking that aspect, or think it proves too much of a distraction, and yet, you have to admire the attempt at artistic license within the parameters of a typical summer blockbuster.
In the film, gangster Big Boy Caprice (Pacino, Sea of Love) trying to get a conglomerate of mob bosses to join forces and own the town before the tenacious police, headed by the seemingly incorruptible Dick Tracy (Beatty), snuff them out. They don't all agree, leaving Caprice little option but to try to get them out of the picture to take care of all of the business himself, although his actions make him the prime target of Tracy. Meanwhile, Tracy struggles with personal issues of his own in trying to balance his sense of duty to his occupation with a yearning to start a family with his main girl, Tess Trueheart (Headley, The Purple Rose of Cairo), further compounded by the presence of a young orphan runaway (Korsmo, Can't Hardly Wait), known simply as "Kid", who becomes a sort of protégé to the brave hero. However, the seductive guile of Caprice's new main showgirl, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna, A League of Their Own), threatens to undermine Tracy on all fronts, though her actions always appear to be sincere.
Dick Tracy is passably enjoyable stuff that proves more memorable for its sights and sounds than anything entertaining to be had from the story itself, Once it's all said and done, the few things that linger in the mind are the unique color scheme, sumptuous Stephen Sondheim songs sung by Madonna, and the sleek sets and costumes. Somewhere underneath the aesthetic qualities, the story gets lost, but there are enough bit parts for famous actors, spins on the old Dick Tracy Mythos, and gorgeous cinematography to maintain an ample interest level throughout. It ultimately falls short of being a truly good film, but it's one of those movies that arrests the attention when it's on. Madonna fans should be pleased at her performance, both as a singer and as an actress; she captivates.
Although Beatty is a fine actor and director, I think that his biggest mistake is in casting himself as the hardnosed, square-jawed detective, primarily because he isn't hard-nosed or square-jawed. Beatty's performance suggests a kind, caring man who is efficient at his job at the expense of his personal life, perhaps too old-fashioned and innocent to ever be completely sullied by the allure of the enticing vices of the underworld lifestyle he regularly brings down. We understand his motivation in doing a good job, but we never quite get a glimpse into his character to get why he has become such a tireless crusader. Even Batman, which barely scratched the surface of such a complex dual identity, tried to give us a peek behind the mask to see how childhood trauma can skew a person's sense of reality. Tracy does what he does, and we can accept it, but we come out of the film understanding just as little as we had from the first impression of him in the beginning. Regardless of the outcome, Beatty's Dick is still a far cry from that of Gould, although he slavishly did recreate the look of most of Tracy's menagerie of villains. Big heads, hunched backs, excessive wrinkles -- why doesn't anyone notice that most of the bad guys are hideously deformed?
One interesting note about Dick Tracy is how hype can really up the quality of a movie in many people's eyes. At the time of its release, there was a great deal of buzz going into the film, probably because people were still hungry for more Batman-type action (another film whose hype generated fervor beyond its means to entertain). Madonna was still red hot, the soundtrack popular, and the film raked in over $100 million at the box office, placing in the top 10 releases of the year, gross-wise. Later, it would garner seven Academy Award nominations (including a questionable Best Actor nod to Pacino), winning three (make-up, art-set decoration, and original song). However, just as quickly as the fervor came for Beatty's film, it died just as quickly. No sequel would result, and no huge cult following. Although the character of Dick Tracy had been around for over 50 years in a variety of mediums, this movie seems to exhausted all interest for the time being, as no TV spin-offs would result, and to this day, no other "Dick Tracy" project of note has been made. Looking at it today, it remains a product of its era -- a pop culture release that had its time and place in the spotlight before making way for the next new and interesting thing.
©2007 Vince Leo