If you think the recent wave of unwanted sequels and unnecessary remakes clogging the multiplexes are a sign that Hollywood has run aground of creativity, well”you would be correct. But if you think this current trend is bad, you obviously don’t remember a recent, darker time in Tinseltown: the wave of big-screen adaptations of television shows from the mid 1980s through the 90s (Hollywood still churns them out, albeit at a lower level than before). While some turned out to be good (the South Park and X-Files movies, the first Naked Gun film), most were either really bad (examples: the Charlie’s Angels films, McHale’s Navy and The Flintstones) or just downright ugly (Bewitched, The Avengers, Lost In Space and Wild, Wild West).
Once in a while, though, we would get a big-screen adaptation would manage to transcend its small-screen roots to become a solid piece of cinema that stood on its own while respecting its origins. 1993’s The Fugitive, 2005’s Serenity, 2000’s Traffic (originally a British TV miniseries) and 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are all great examples. But for me, the best of the best still remains Brian De Palma 1987’s classic, The Untouchables, recently released on Blu-ray and HD DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Suggested (as the end credits imply) by the 1950s television series starring Robert Stack and also based loosely on real-life events (neither the show or the movie followed the real-life events too closely), Untouchables is the tale of Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), a young and earnest United States Treasury agent who comes to Prohibition-era Chicago to fight Mob kingpin Al Capone (Robert De Niro), who has a pretty tight grip on the city through violence and vast amounts of corruption within the various justice departments.
When Ness encounters the effects of Capone’s corruption firsthand following a failed and rather embarrassing raid on a warehouse, he realizes that he needs to hand pick his own group of incorruptible men to take down Capone’s organization. He finds three: veteran beat cop James Malone (Sean Connery), who becomes Ness” mentor, nebbish Treasury accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin-Smith) and ace marksman George Stone (Andy Garcia). Nicknamed The Untouchables by local law and the press, the quartet takes the battle to Capone and his gang, but not without a price.
The Untouchables is one of those rare entertainments that never take a false step. At its core lie a terrific, endlessly quotable (at least by my friends and I) morality tale penned by the legendary David Mamet, which is then brought to vivid life by De Palma (who displays a uncharacteristic and welcome level of restraint in his directing) and an excellent ensemble cast. Unlike action films you come across today, Untouchables doesn’t try to delve into the psyche of its heroes or villains, nor did it try to make some important, socially relevant statement. It’s a simple tale of good versus evil, filled with involving characters and told in the grandest of styles. And while the violence can be quite graphic at times (this is a Brian De Palma film, after all), the film is absolutely beautiful to look at thanks to Patrizia Von Brandenstein’s production design, William Elliott’s art direction and Steven H. Burum’s excellent widescreen cinematography.
With such big guns as Robert De Niro and Sean Connery (both at their best) occupying the screen, it would have been easy for Costner, Garcia and Smith to be overshadowed. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Sure, one could squabble about Costner’s line delivery, which can be a bit corny at times. But in the end I think the delivery suits Ness” no-nonsense, serious nature perfectly (hard to believe that three short years later, he’d direct the Oscar-winning epic Dances With Wolves). Smith brought a welcome amount of comedy to his role without turning Wallace into a bumbling fool, while Garcia brings a cool intensity to the character of Stone. Along with Connery, the trio display great chemistry and work very well off, making for a completely believable crime-fighting team.
I’ve been a fan of Brian De Palma’s work ever since I first saw “Scarface” back in 1983. As with any other filmmaker, his career has had its share of highs and lows, but The Untouchables is something different altogether. It’s an unabashed crowd-pleaser that is as much fun on its twentieth viewing as it is on its first.
Paramount has been continually impressing next-generation DVD fans with their great transfers of films both new (Babel, Flags of Our Fathers) and old (Payback, Trading Places). The Blu-ray release of The Untouchables is another winner. The print is in excellent shape with nary a mark on it, and the 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4 encode beautifully captures it. Colors are nicely handled, black levels are solid and grain is kept to a minimum. But what really grabbed my attention was the amount of detail. It’s great, plain and simple. The patterns in the costumes, the clarity of newspaper headlines and signs and background objects are spot on (this is what happens when you have seen a film one too many times: you begin to notice even the smallest of things). If I had a small complaint on an otherwise fine video presentation, it would be that the picture seems to be a tad artificially sharp. Not overly so but just enough to make me take notice. I’ve owned this film in every conceivable format since it first hit home video back in 1988 and this is the best it has ”or probably will- ever look.
We are still not getting lossless audio tracks on Paramount Blu-ray (or HD DVD) releases, but given the sound design ”and age- of this film (remember, it came from the pre-digital 1980s), I’m not sure a PCM or Dolby TrueHD track would have helped all that much. The disc does have two audio tracks to choose from: a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround track and a DTS 6.1 track. While I found the Dolby Digital track to be decent, I found the DTS track to be the one of choice here. It comes across as the fuller and cleaner of the two. Both feature sound that mostly derives from the center and front left and right speakers, with the occasional use of surrounds for Ennio Morricone’s magnificent music score and occasional sound effects or two. Both get the job done, but you get that little bit of an extra kick from the DTS track.
Porting the extras over from the Special Edition DVD from a few years back, the Blu-ray (and HD DVD) edition of The Untouchables presents a small, but solid, collection of retrospective documentaries that should please fans. Unfortunately, with the exception of one supplement, all of the extras are presented in 4×3 standard-definition (and, there is no “play all” option either).
The Script, the Cast (18:27) is a mix of old (from 1987) and new (De Palma and producer Art Linson) interviews, which traces the production’s start. We learn that De Palma was looking to make a big studio picture and yield a big box office hit so he could continue to make his smaller, more esoteric films. We also learn that neither he nor Linson were big fans of the 1950s TV series (but loved David Mamet’s screenplay), that De Palma was a bit reluctant to cast Costner at first. We also learn that Andy Garcia had initially tried out for the role of Frank Nitti (which eventually went to Billy Drago). The hiring and eventual letting go of Bob Hoskins as Al Capone is also discussed.
Next up is Production Stories (17:14), which, of course, talks about the shooting of the film as well as recreating the time period the film takes place in. As with The Script”, this doc contains an interesting mix of new and archive interview footage with De Palma, actors Sean Connery (Who had suggested that the Chicago Way speech be done in a church), Charles Martin Smith, cinematographer Steven Burum (who initially wanted to shoot the film in black and white) and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein.
Reinventing the Genre (14:18) talks about several of the set pieces in the movie, including the shoot out at the Canadian border (Montana filled in for Canada) where De Palma wanted to move the movie into John Ford Territory (his words), the demise of two major characters (for the two or three people who have not seen this film yet, I won’t divulge who they are) as well as the classic shootout on the steps of a Chicago train station (De Palma’s ode to 1925’s “Battleship Potemkin”). Along the way, there are interesting anecdotes attached to each set piece revealed by those interviewed.
Wrapping up the documentary section is The Classic (5:20), a quick peek at the post production (in which those interviewed understandably sing the praises of Morricone’s score) and the popularity the film enjoyed upon its release two decades ago. The remaining two features on the disc are a promo piece from 1987 entitled The Men, which is full screen and is in pretty bad shape (even worse, the scenes from the film are atrociously panned and scanned!). The Theatrical Trailer (2:45) is in HD and in better shape than The Men, if only by a little bit.
The Untouchables is a modern-day classic. A larger-than-life tale of good and evil that gets every aspect of commercial filmmaking right, the film remains a winner even after twenty years. Paramount’s Blu-ray edition offers a solid presentation of the movie, and a well-rounded, informative set of supplemental materials. This disc comes highly recommended and is essential for any next-generation home video library.
– Shawn Fitzgerald