24 September 2005 | Hancock_the_Superb
Fun Movie, Though Don't Expect A Documentary!
When I was 11 or 12, I thought that this was the coolest movie ever made. And why not? It had some great action scenes, extremely good heroes, and extremely nasty villains. On that level, the film is perfect. Now that I'm a bit older, I still enjoy the film a lot, just not as much as I used to. It certainly isn't on my top ten list.
In the 1930's, Prohibition is in full swing, and Chicago mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) rules over his empire with bombs, bribes, and machine guns. Since Prohibition is very unpopular with the American people, who's going to stand up to Capone? Enter straight-laced young Treasury Agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), who wants to do the right thing but realizes that the methods required are much more unorthodox, what with the corrupt police department and all. He enlists the help of an aging beat cop (Sean Connery in an Oscar-winning performance), a nebbish accountant (Charles Martin Smith) and a young police cadet who's a crack shot with a pistol (Andy Garcia) and begins taking down Capone "the Chicago way". After many shootouts, liquor raids, and assassinations, it all comes down to a climactic showdown - on the roof of a crowded courthouse! - between Ness and Capone's chief henchman, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago).
The movie is, as has been pointed out, much more faithful to the original television series with Robert Stack than the historical record, of which it bears virtually no resemblance, not that that is necessarily a problem. In real life, there were up to a dozen "Untouchables", whose success was very limited, and never got into any actual shootouts with Capone (though Capone did try to kill Ness himself on at least two occasions). Capone thought of Ness as a publicity seeking nuisance, nothing more; the two never even met face-to-face. Frank Wilson and the IRS had a LOT more to do with Capone's indictment than Ness and the Untouchables ever did. And of course Frank Nitti lived for over a decade after Capone was jailed.
That being said: who cares? This was intended as a fun, classy action movie, not a historical documentary. The movie is extremely authentic in attention to period detail, and though a bit over-the-top, it succeeds in its primary objective: to entertain. The movie was meant as a cross between a classy gangster film and a good old-fashioned cops'n'robbers shoot-'em-up, and was highly successful at that.
The acting is great all around, with Costner and Connery in particular giving one of their best performances. Costner does a creditable job at making Ness go from a greenhorn do-gooder (the scene where he yells at the corpse of a gangster he's had to kill is one of the movie's few weak moments) to a tough, hard-assed veteran in a little over two hours, no mean feat. Connery does a great job as Malone, the aging, guilt-ridden cop who becomes Ness's mentor (though his death scene is a bit overdone, I must admit I actually cried the first time I saw it!). Garcia and Smith have somewhat less to do, though each have their moments (Smith sipping bootleg whiskey during the bridge ambush, and Garcia's initial confrontation with Ness and Malone). De Niro, who made a career playing gangsters, takes the logical step of playing THE single most famous gangster of all time, Al Capone, and DeNiro, Method actor that he is, does a great job managing to look, sound, and act the part, despite very limited screen time (does ANYONE come away from this film not remembering the infamous baseball scene?). Drago fits the part of a sneering, one-dimensional villain, and manages to make Nitti a menacing and even charismatic character despite having little to work with. Other talented character actors - Richard Bradford, Jack Kehoe, Patricia Clarkson, Brad Sullivan, Del Close, Clifford James - round out the cast.
Where the movie excels, however, are its action sequences. The ambush of Capone's bootleg convoy at the Canadian border is simply exhilarating, and the suspenseful rooftop shootout between Ness and Nitti is extremely memorable as well. But what steals the show is the wonderfully done "Potemkin" homage in Union Station, where Ness and Stone try to apprehend Capone's book keeper, take out his bodyguards, AND save a baby carriage pluming down the stairs. Virtually the whole scene is done in slow motion, and is indescribably intense and even beautiful.
Ennio Morricone provides a wonderful score, and I'm not sure why he dislikes it so much, as he's said in interviews. True, it's not up to par with his works for Sergio Leone's films, but what is? He provides an exhilarating, heroic score which captures the feel and tone of the movie perfectly (though for my money, the heartbreaking "Death Theme", played on solo saxophone, is the best track).
Overall, "The Untouchables" is NOT a great gangster film, like "The Godfather" or "Once Upon A Time In America", nor is it an accurate account of the real-life events it portrays. But it's a fun, extremely stylish, well-made and enjoyable film, and on that score, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.