Movie review: The Untouchables

The Untouchables poster

Note: I learned of the death of the legendary Sean Connery from my wife when I woke up this morning. In tribute to the great man, here is a review I wrote at another venue of The Untouchables, for which he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jim Malone, an honest cop in a dirty town. Not too far off topic, I think–it is a crime film. Rest in Peace to a beloved icon.

I would hope no one takes The Untouchables seriously as history, even history graded on the Hollywood curve. Rather, the story of Eliot Ness and Al Capone is American mythology, and you’d do no better getting your facts about Al Capone from it as you would from “The Night Chicago Died.”

In a manner similar to any portrayal of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Untouchables seeks to both depict and add to that mythology, and at that it excels. This is most notable in the striking use of a baseball bat in a fashion not approved of by the makers of the Louisville Slugger, but the film also gave us, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun,” a line paraphrased by no less than a US president (also from Chicago).

The Untouchables mixes three kinds of filmed entertainment–it takes the mobster movies and television programs of previous generations (including, of course, “The Untouchables,”) and updates them by adding in the adventure of the summer blockbuster while imparting some gravitas via elements of The Godfather films’ mafia drama.

This is audacious–in hands lesser skilled than those of Brian De Palma and David Mamet (as well as Ennio Morricone and many others in a film brimming with top-notch talent), the blockbuster-style horseback raid in a film about mobsters would have been unintentionally hilarious. Instead, it’s thrilling, as Ness moves the battle out of Capone’s territory (Chicago) and into Our territory (the American heartland and its peaceful neighbor to the north). Advantage: Ness, and a turning point in his crusade.

It’s no slight on the film to say that the world of The Untouchables is black and white. Al Capone was not a cuddly fellow, and the only tender side we see in Robert De Niro’s portrayal is him weeping during an opera (where he also gets word of a successful hit on an enemy). Kevin Costner plays Ness as an attempted stoic, tightly controlled emotions belying that he is a big-hearted family man afraid that his rage at the violence consuming his community will spiral out of control. Ness’ only weaknesses are his addiction to his own newspaper headlines and his initial unwillingness to violate the law. Both are excusable. PR is an important front in any war, and breaking the law in pursuit of a perceived higher justice can cost you not just your soul, but your court case.

The film’s flaws are few. Some of the blockbuster motifs, particularly the comic relief, could be accused of adding an unwelcome element of triviality to the film. But in one instance, a moment of at-the-time goofy comic relief adds needed humanity to a walking stereotype, setting the viewer up for heartbreak later in the film.

My impression is that critical estimation of The Untouchables has declined since its release. If so, that’s a shame. It towers over most of the current era’s popular films like Al Capone on its striking poster.