Film Review: Dick Tracy (1990)

in #aaalast year


Tim Burton’s Batman was one of the most influential films of its time. It convinced major Hollywood studios that lucrative film series can be built upon comic book originally created decades ago. It also led to many films that tried to repeat its success by applying some of its formula – retro style, impressive cast, soundtrack based around contemporary pop star and relentless promotion months before the premiere. None of those followed such formula as Dick Tracy, 1990 film directed by Warren Beatty.

The film is based on long-running series of detective comic strips originally created by Chester Gould in 1931. The plot begins in late 1938 in unnamed big city (which looks very much like combination of Chicago and New York) and the protagonist, played by Beatty, is Dick Tracy, police detective equipped with wristwatch-like radio and dedicated to protect citizens from criminals. His job got more complicated after gangster Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (played by Al Pacino) takes out his rivals, becomes undisputed crime lord and begins extorting money from each and every business in the city. Dick Tracy believes that he could take down Big Boy if he makes his girlfriend, glamorous lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (played by Madonna), testify against him. Breathless, on the other hand, doesn’t hide that she would very much like to start romance with square-jawed detective. That creates problems for Tracy’s private life because his long-suffering girlfriend Tess Truehart (played by Glenne Headley), who always dreamed of two of them getting married. Further complication is presence of Kid (played by Charlie Korsmo), street urchin whom Tracy and Tess semi-adopted in order to prevent him being sent to orphanage.

Dick Tracy represents strange compromise between New Hollywood-style auteur ethos embodied by Beatty as director and mainstream commercial considerations of Walt Disney Studios. It happened because Beatty, hired first as a star, took over direction and somehow managed to dictate what the film would look like. Beatty was big fan of the original comics and tried to make the film look as close to original comic strips, often at the expense of its conventionality. Since original comics were printed in only seven colours, all costumes, clothes and other props use the same, and cinematography by Vittorio Storaro makes Dick Tracy immediately look artificial. Beatty also tried to reconstruct grotesque looks of film’s villains and does so with the use of heavy make-up that might impress comic book fans, but also makes many great actors in small cameo-roles unrecognisable and almost unnoticeable. That almost happens even to Al Pacino who only manages to create impression by his usual overacting and use of sometimes “clever” dialogues, like with Big Boy’s misquoting great historical persons. It takes a while for viewers to adjust to those surreal images, but after when they do, many can appreciate what Beatty did or intended to do.

Unfortunately, Dick Tracy, like so many big budget Hollywood films at the time, is in its essence triumph of style over substance. The plot is very thin and the characters are one-dimensional. That applies even to protagonist, who, although played solidly by Beatty, almost lacks any emotion. Madonna (who promoted the film on her Blond Ambition tour) again shows her lack of acting ability and her attempts to play archetypal femme fatale seductress look bland. She lacks chemistry with Beatty, despite two of them being real life couple during time of production. Glenne Headley, who plays “good girl”, does much better job with the limited material given. Film, on the other hand, is well-edited and high production values can be seen in use of sound stages and old-fashioned effects that involve matte paintings that nevertheless successfully create Dick Tracy’s fictional world. Film is accompanied by Danny Elfman’s music which is many ways indistinguishable from his work in Batman. However, music also involves songs created for this film by famed Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim. Those songs are likeable and one of them, “Sooner or Later”, would later win Oscar for Best Original Song. Dick Tracy wasn’t that successful among critics and even otherwise great box office wasn’t that impressive when compared with huge costs of promotion. That, and legal issues between Beatty and original comic publishers, prevented sequels from being made. This turned Dick Tracy into one of rare comic book adaptations of such scope and ambition that could be judged solely on its own merit.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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