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Action Alphabet: 'The Untouchables'

Story types go in and out of fashion all the time, but stories of good versus evil are always en vogue. So maybe nowadays audiences prefer their heroes with varying subtleties of character à la Hemingway, but there’s still something classic and uplifting about watching a story about the staunchly upright and moral battling against the purely evil and despicable. Even if Brian De Palma’s directing is lacking in consistency and even if David Mamet’s script is a bit hammy and completely devoid of Mametisms, the 1988 prohibition action-drama The Untouchables is gorgeous, heroic, exciting, and a definitive example of light versus dark. So what if the heroes are a little too perfect and the villains are a little too gonzo? – The Untouchables is a stand-up movie that is still engaging, funny, and heartbreaking almost three decades after it first came out.

Photos from 'The Untouchables'
Photos from 'The Untouchables'
Kevin Costner in 'The Untouchables'

It’s the story of 1930’s lawman Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner in probably his best acting performance ever), a young and idealistic U.S. Treasury agent who is hell bent on rescuing his beloved Chicago from the booze-pushing clutches Al Capone (Robert DeNiro); Ness does his best, but his efforts prove fruitless and embarrassing. He feels like throwing in the proverbial towel until he meets opinionated beat cop Jim Alone (Sean Connery in his Oscar-winning role) who teaches Ness the ropes of the Chicago underworld. He also recruits Washington agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) and police recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia) and so it formed the titular quartet of incorruptible Volstead Act enforcers. But Capone won’t let his lucrative business go without a fight, taking some of Ness’s men out along the way. But Ness finds a fight within himself when he is confronted with the reality of the deaths of his peers, refusing to back down to the infamous liquor king. If there’s an issue to be had with this movie, it’s the same beef one might have with Braveheart or other action-fueled period pieces – hard facts are grossly overlooked in order to make way for a more dramatic unraveling of events. But for all that is wonderful about this movie, it’s a forgivable offense (I’m not a big fan of the art deco look, but that’s an eighties thing so I forgive that too).

The driving force behind this movie is certainly its cast. Costner, Connery, Garcia, and Wallace fit the four humors character grouping beautifully and DeNiro is sadistic and eerie in his cartoonish and nihilistic portrayal of Al Capone. And if the cast is the head and heart of The Untouchables, then technical elements are the arms and legs: the cast costumed in gorgeous Armani suits, the camera frames composed like Renaissance artwork, and the brilliant driving score by the singular Ennio Morricone (never was there a better titled theme for a movie than “The Strength of the Righteous”). And the blood of the movie, the source of its life? Action. Some people criticize this movie for being inconsistently paced, but I would disagree: I would say that the action scenes are so revelatory and rousing that they diminish the quieter moments of the film. The shootout with smugglers on the Canadian border is reminiscent of classic western gun battle grandiosity – the music swells and the heroes are on horseback and you feel like clapping. The best though is gun battle on the steps at the train station; it is by far one of the sweetest slow-mo action sequences in the movies and that includes all the movies today that beat the technique like a dead horse. If you’ve never seen The Untouchables, that scene alone is a stand-alone reason to watch it.