Review by Gene
The star power present in this film alone should make this movie nearly a household name to any good student of film history. Couple that with the typical drama of any gangster story worth it’s salt and you’ve got the makings of a great one. Kevin Costner stars in this 1987 release of the 1959 original as Eliot Ness, a federal agent of the treasury department determined to bring down Chicago crime boss Al Capone, played by (who else) Robert De Niro. Set in (when else) 1930 prohibition era in (where else) Chicago, there is as much star-power as fire-power in this movie. Sean Connery (Jim Malone) and Andy Garcia (George Stone) join Costner and De Niro along with the familiar faces of Billy Drago, Charles Martin Smith, Patricia Clarkson and Brad Sullivan.
I mock the actor playing Capone, the time and the location of the movie to point out the fact that this is a fairly predictable film. You won’t find many movies involving Al Capone that deviate much from the general storyline of The Untouchables. You could just about take a look at the movie poster and come up with your own beginning-middle-end that is pretty close to what’s in the movie. However, what it grants in predictability is more than made up for in style, quality acting, and a solid portrayal of a moral dilemma faced by our lead man. More on that later.
The opening scenes set forth the apparent bias in the Chicago media already present. We are shown Capone getting a shave while peppered with softball questions from reporters, never sparing the occasional laugh. The only serious moment comes when the barber nicks Capone and draws blood. From the barbers reaction, and the immediate silence in the room, I was half expecting a bullet to the barbers head. Moments later, Ness is introduced to the media as the one who is to take on the illegal alcohol rings in the city. He is grilled by reporters, sometimes on the verge of mocking him and usually distracting from the reason he was there. We certainly begin to get a good feel for the “Chicago-style”.
Ness is the golden boy officer who is dead set on administering the law and staying within the boundaries of the law. He wants to do what’s right. In introducing himself to the Chicago cops he tells them “we must be pure” in reference to abstaining from alcohol, and that “as we are going to enforce the law, we must do first by example.” His moral compass points straight and true, and he demands the same of his men. However, after a failed bust, and upon entering the precinct the following morning, officers are shown mocking Ness and his “let’s do some good” attitude in fighting crime. He’s seen as peculiar, strange and out of place in this city. If you’re a Christian you can (or should) probably relate to this. A Christian can often feel out of place or awkward in this world. Much of what is considered status quo to the world is alien to a Christian. These officers reflect a culture of complacency and lost priorities in the city’s law enforcement, and Ness is out of his element.
I’ll be honest, after the first few scenes I was pretty down on this movie. Costner isn’t delivering how I’m expecting him to, the scene transitions are abrupt and choppy, the soundtrack feels unwarranted and inappropriate. It’s hard when it should be suspenseful. It’s up-beat when it should be soft and converging. Maybe I’m just not a saxophone fan. Thank goodness for Sean Connery, he absolutely pulls this movie up by the bootstraps. The moment his character (Officer Jim Malone) is introduced I think this film takes a whole new direction and starts to push me ahead in the story with it, rather than drag me along. Malone is a seasoned veteran of the force. He can, and does, show Ness a thing or two. The exchange between he and Ness when Eliot first invites him to join his cracker-jack crew is terrific and provides a great tease for what is to come between these two.
Malone undergoes a big change of heart early in this film. Upon first request to join Ness in taking down Capone, Malone’s response is no. He says his priority at this point in his life is staying alive, and that is why he’s a beat cop. You can see the guilt and shame on his face as he somehow allows these words to leave his mouth. After further consideration, he presses Ness on a crucial question. A question which can sum-up this entire movie; What are you prepared to do? Capone pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the “Chicago way”. This doesn’t sit well with Ness. His answer to the question, “everything within the law”, is met with a quick reply from Malone of “and THEN what are you prepared to do?”. At this moment Malone, sitting on a church pew with Ness, pauses to think. The conclusion to his thoughts, and the answer to whether he’ll join Ness, is that The Lord hates a coward.
The Bible is replete with references to justice. You can’t make it through Psalms and Proverbs without soaking in it. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for perverting justice and God commanded his people that “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue…” (Dt. 16:19f). Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re not talking about prohibition. I don’t know of anyone today that would go to the mattresses to uphold that law. Suppose you witnessed or knew of a righteous law being broken. How important is justice to you, that you come to the defense of that law or the criticism of those who break it? Better yet, how should your pursuit of justice, as God calls us to do, play out in your treatment of unrighteous laws? Is it worth your effort to stand up for justice, and for those who cannot stand up for themselves? Think about it.
From this point the movie really takes off. The newly assembled crew goes to work and Malone takes Ness under his wing, an ironic twist. Ness and his men have a new-found confidence. The headlines no longer report of his mishaps, but rather his successes in taking down liquor joints across the city. This confidence however is met with an equal amount of severity by Capone. He takes his frustrations out on his men, his attempts at bribery hit a brick wall and he begins to intimidate Eliot’s family. I can’t right away think of any actor who has played Capone better than De Niro in this film. His facial expressions deliver as much intensity as his words, and the intensity of the film continues to rise, along with the bloodshed.
After the murder of one of their crew, Ness is ready to call it quits. Malone confronts him again with this question, “what are you prepared to do?”. Only now it has new meaning. Bringing criminals to justice means the possible loss of life of his own, those he’s responsible for, those he’s grown to care about. If you’re like me, you might immediately recognize this exchange between Malone and Ness. It is very similar to the exchange between Thor and Nick Fury in Avengers regarding what to do about Loki. I’m not sure if that’s a deliberate tip-of-the-hat, but an interesting connection regardless.
The remainder of the film see’s Ness, our righteous hero, go to lengths I’m sure he never thought he’d reach in order to exact vengeance on these law-breakers, one in particular. This also has me thinking of a great line from another newer movie, The Dark Knight. You either die the hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. It wouldn’t be fair to say Ness becomes a villain, but he certainly stole a page from their book. I’ll leave the rest for you to find out for yourself. But I can promise you that very few films, gangster or otherwise, can deliver on the drama of some of the final scenes in The Untouchables.
My Rating: 4/5
The negatives points I have for the early parts of the movie really do iron themselves out eventually. Costner begins to deliver much better with Connery to bounce off of. The supporting roles throughout the movie are very well done, in particular the supportive and loving wife of Eliot Ness played by Patricia Clarkson. The scenes with her really help you to understand what it is that grounds Eliot and what he’s fighting for. Capone’s designated hit-man was adequately sinister. De Niro, again, did Capone about as well as any actor could. There are slight hints at awkwardness between the lead actors during intense exchanges. I’d be interested to see what hit the cutting room floor. Aside from that and some scene transitions that just didn’t flow real well, this is a solid movie, definitely a classic gangster flick. If you can stomach some explicit violence in terms of head shots and bullet-riddled bodies, and low to moderate foul language (especially when compared to today’s gangster movies), then I would definitely recommend this movie.
Mountie: “Mr. Ness! I do not approve of your methods.” Ness: “Yeah… well you’re not from Chicago.”
Malone: “And what are you prepared to do now?” Ness: “What would you have me do!”
Capone: “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.”
Nitti: “I said your friend died like a stuck Irish pig. Now you think about that when I beat the rap.”
Ness: “I have foresworn myself, I have broken every law I swore to defend, I have become what I have beheld and am content that I have done right.”