At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Untouchables “89”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Drama/ Stars: Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Robert De Niro, Billy Drago, Richard Bradford, Jack Kehoe, Patricia Clarkson, Del Close/ Runtime: 119 minutes

I feel it is only appropriate to start this review off with a little history lesson. In the long-gone year of 1919, and against the steeply-stated reservations from then President Wilson, an act was passed known as the Volstead Act. An act that made it possible for the law to attempt to enforce the 18th Amendment, and thus whisked the country into the time period in our history known as Prohibition. The key word in everything I just said however is attempt. That is because where this act severely failed was not only did it not keep people from finding ways to get booze, but it also didn’t keep a specific kind of “businessman” from selling it to the public. A fact that soon enabled organized crime to turn illegal liquor into a literal billion-dollar industry. This was especially noteworthy in large cities where the local mob bosses at the time were quickest to get on board with this new scheme. Out of all the mob bosses however, perhaps none was more infamous than Mr. Al Capone, who by the year 1930, had made this vice into an empire and had pretty much the entire city of Chicago in his pocket.

Indeed from the cops who walked the beat to the judges presiding over the city’s highest courts, it quickly became apparent that seemingly every person in some degree of authority could be bought…..for the right price. Thus this is the way things were in Chicago for quite a while. That is at least until the U.S. Treasury Department sent an agent by the name of Eliot Ness down there and who, upon seeing just how filthy the corruption had gotten, secretly handpicked a team consisting of the few remaining honest law enforcement officers in town not only to help clean the city up, but to help him nab Capone. This is the story of that squad which was soon dubbed “The Untouchables” because, unlike 98% of Chicago, these men could not be bought and they could never be gotten to. Suffice it to say that even though they were quite courageous for what they were trying to do, the deck was not in their favor. Indeed this was a small group of men going up against a literal army of criminals who all were equally as deadly with a Tommy gun as they were at infiltration tactics. Suffice it to say then that the group, outside of each other, literally could trust absolutely no one right down to the law enforcement that walked the streets with them on a daily basis. Yet even though the majority of people looked at what this squad and their intrepid leader were trying to do was a fool’s crusade through and through, they ultimately persevered against the odds, and took the fight to Capone with everything they had at their disposal. Suffice it to say then that, thanks to wonderful work from the filmmaking crew as well as iconic performances from the cast, the story of these men and their heroics has now become the stuff of legend.

The plot is as follows: The Untouchables takes us back to the 1930’s where that “much-loved law” known as Prohibition is in full swing, and the infamous Chicago gang lord Al Capone has total control of the city through the use of bribery, explosives, Tommy guns, and sly charm mixed with horrific ruthlessness and brutality. Yet since the act of Prohibition isn’t exactly the most loved thing with the American people, the question soon arises of who in their right mind would be dumb enough to stand up to the infamous crime lord Capone and, in effect, the entire city of Chicago? It isn’t long before we get an answer in the form of a young yet quite prim and proper agent sent by the U.S. Treasury by the name of Elliot Ness. Ness is a man who is resolute in his convictions and wants more than anything else to do right by the law of the land, but who soon realizes that if he wants to restore justice to the city of Chicago he is going to have to utilize methods that are outside the norm especially when taking into account the fact that it seems like virtually the entire Chicago police force is on the take. To that end, Ness soon recruits the aid of a seasoned Chicago cop named Malone, a milquetoast yet resourceful federal accountant named Oscar Wallace, and a young cadet in the Chicago police academy who’s already a a fantastic shot named George Stone to aid him in this crusade and together this unlikely squad begins taking down Capone in a way based in both brute force and escalation. Indeed, despite the fact that their fellow cops would much sooner look the other way, Ness and his squad instead choose to dive head first into action against the alcohol-based organized crime that has the city in its cold, iron grasp. It isn’t long however before word of this elite unit gets back to Capone and, seeing his own business being targeted by our intrepid team, begins focusing his efforts towards wiping out this squad of pesky cops who have started becoming less a nuisance and more a genuine threat to his profitable dynasty of illegal liquor running and organized crime. Thus the battle lines are drawn for a conflict that will come to define not just the men involved, but also the city of Chicago and the era of Prohibition altogether as well….

Now in regards to work behind the camera, I must say that the work of the technical departments is absolutely fantastic. Indeed in regards to the costumes and the recreation of Chicago in the 1930’s, it is so authentic and faithful to the time period that when you see some of the gorgeous panoramic camera work done, it really makes you feel like you are back in the Prohibition era. Indeed you can say what you will about the performances, but in regards to the skill of the film crew, this movie is a riveting showcase of both a diligent sense of perfectionism as well as a loving sense of detail and craftsmanship. Not only that, but the work done by the director is also fantastic even if there are moments where it seems like he is trying to show off with some camera work that is extremely dizzying and absolutely unnecessary. Nevertheless De Palma has proven, after movies like Scarface and Carrie, that he is a truly terrific filmmaker due in no small part to his distinct gift of effectively transitioning from moments of ease to absolutely phenomenal yet also quite potent flashes of absolutely gruesome violence and it is no different here. Suffice it to say then that this film was most assuredly worked on by a team of skilled professionals who know their craft and who took everything they had and all their skill and made this film into one of the best in its storied genre. Yet with all of this phenomenal work on the technical side of things it should be noted that there are a pair of truly great sit-up-and-take notice moments in “The Untouchables”, and if you’ve seen the film you know what they are. The first is when Capone decides to engage in both an extremely well-written monologue while also engaging in some batting practice…..during a dinner meeting with the higher-up members of his organization (gulp) while the other occurs later in the film and is simply known as “the baby carriage scene”, and is a scene that may have actually drawn inspiration from a silent film which was released in 1925 known as “Battleship Potemkin”. Indeed whenever I watch this movie these are the moments that have always stood out to me the most. Yet the thing that I find positively remarkable is, after watching both the latter scene and the movie that inspired it, I am just blown away by the level of harmonious synchronicity that exists whenever a viewing experience gives you a moment like this. Indeed there may be a fair amount of you who might not fully comprehend just what I am saying, but if you take the time to watch both movies you will most assuredly see what I am talking about here.

Yet the main thing that every single critic and their mother it seems like has praised this film for is the work done in the acting department. Suffice it to say that the acting in this film is truly phenomenal and iconic. This starts with Kevin Costner in the lead role of Elliot Ness and suffice it to say this is one of his finest roles. Indeed while there are those who have noted that he doesn’t seem able to showcase the pathos necessary for this character, to those people I would just like to ask if we saw the same movie or not. I say this because he is 100% spot-on in this. Indeed, to be fair, he may seem like a Boy Scout in quite a few ways, but as the narrative moves forward, Ness really evolves as a person and finds himself becoming significantly more emotionally involved, both with his newfound pals & the cause for which they are fighting, in what he does to the extent that by film’s end he becomes willing to bend and even break some of the laws that he at first tried in vain to uphold in order to see justice done. We also see good work from dependable character actor/ noted director Charles Martin Smith as Oscar Wallace. Indeed even though his character and his arc in this is severely limited, he will still manage to win you over thanks not only to his gung-ho attitude, but with how relatable he is as a character as well. We also get wonderful early work from Andy Garcia as the gunslinger of sorts in the group and he is absolutely both believable and terrific in the part. Indeed he might not get a lot of dialogue, but when he gets it, it is delivered with the passion and skill that Garcia has come to be known for displaying. Yet this trio, with as phenomenal work as they do, are just pillars to the truly iconic co-starring roles provided by Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. Indeed as Capone, De Niro is absolutely threatening and larger-than-life in the best ways possible. Not only that, but De Niro is able to showcase the ruthlessness that was a Capone trademark as well as the brute criminal Capone was under all the polish and sheen on the surface without once trying to delete any of the aspects that made this infamous gangster so despicable. Indeed it really is one of the more remarkable portrayals of a crime lord, besides the Corleones, Tony Montana, and Carlito, and it really makes for a fantastic performance, for which De Niro most assuredly should have garnered an Oscar nomination for. As for Connery he manages to gives an absolutely icon performance as Malone, a resilient Irish beat cop who becomes something of a teacher to Ness and the other Untouchables by letting them know from the word go just what kind of world they are entering. Indeed it really is a perfect role for the celebrated Scottish actor whose tough exterior and attitude are spot-on. Not only that, but Connery manages to brilliantly insert into Malone the jaded, worldly, yet also tired attitude of a guy who has, at this point in his life, has seen pretty much everything yet is still, deep down inside, hoping that one day justice will be served. Indeed it really truly is an iconic character and performance from a man who, until his retirement in 2003, gave us so many besides his role as Bond. James Bond.

All in all I guess you should know this before watching this film: do not expect it to be in the same vein as say The Godfather trilogy, GoodFellas, or even Casino. This is because the truth of the matter is that The Untouchables doesn’t even remotely come close to having the complex, world building narrative that is an integral part of those other movies. This is because The Untouchables chooses to be different in how it lets itself be driven more by a lengthy game of cops and robbers. The key difference of course being that, unlike the vast majority of films in this storied genre, this narrative is told from the point view of some heroic cops rather than the gangster they are devoted to taking down. Thus I feel the narrative has to engage in an entirely new way of doing things because of the fact that the main gangster in this is most certainly not the hero. Indeed we do not sympathize with Al Capone in this one bit. He is instead a character to be despised and hated and we want to see him taken down just as much as our intrepid group of heroes does. Yet even though I think the majority of people like it when these tales are told from the crook’s perspective, I still feel that this film does a compelling job telling a tale from the other side of the fence so to speak. Yet despite that key distinction, it is definitely worth mentioning that as far as its status in this storied genre, The Untouchables is truly a great film. Indeed not only is it, from a visual standpoint, quite phenomenal, but the screenplay written by noted playwright David Mamet’s is pure excellence. Plus this is also a movie where the entire cast all manage to give truly rewarding performances, especially Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, De Niro as Capone, and Sean Connery as Malone. Yet the icing on the cake has to be the iconic work done by composing legend Ennio Morricone who manages to provide the film with an engaging and riveting score that makes the whole film an absolute treasure to enjoy and cherish. Suffice it to say then that if you love great films, the gangster genre, or both then definitely give this one a watch and on that note: here endeth the lesson. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Untouchables a solid 4 out of 5.