1930: Prohibition has transformed Chicago into a City at War. Rival gangs compete for control of the city’s billion dollar empire of illegal alcohol, enforcing their will with the hand grenade and tommy gun. It is the time of the Ganglords. It is the time of Al Capone.
1987 was a pretty kick-ass year, so far as movies go, don’t you think? I’ve already blabbed about the first Lethal Weapon film, which was released in March of that year, and there’s still more to come with such classics as Predator, Robocop, and Full Metal Jacket–just to name a few–all celebrating their 30th anniversaries this year.
We’ll get to those, sure. For now, though? It’s time to hang with Elliot Ness.
Directed by Brian De Palma from David Mamet’s excellent script, the film is less a remake of the classic Robert Stack series than it is an adaptation of Elliot Ness’ own memoir, The Untouchables from 1957, which also inspired the TV series. In the era of Prohibition, the Department of the Treasury dispatches Ness to Chicago on a mission to bring mob leader Al Capone to justice. Capone pretty much has the entire city under his thumb, including the police and the city government, as he goes about his business of bootlegging liquor, along with healthy doses of gambling and prostitution. What follows is a lengthy quest as Ness and his men, nicknamed “the Untouchables” due to their reputation for being “incorruptible,” set out to bring down Capone and his organization.
Kevin Costner, in one of my favorite of his roles, portrays Ness, facing off against Robert De Niro as the legendary Capone. Sean Connery is Ness’ trusted colleague Jimmy Malone (a role for which he would earn an Oscar) and Andy Garcia is George Stone, the “fresh-faced” rookie, right out of the academy and untainted by Capone’s long reach into the compromised police department.
Brian De Palma, in an uncharacteristic display of something resembling self-restraint, sticks pretty closely to the story Mamet brings forth, though he does manage a few of his signature stylings throughout the film. In particular, the sequence in the train station as Ness and Stone go after Capone’s accountant is classic De Palma. As for Mamet’s script? Bang on, from start to finish and with the perfect balance of action, drama, and character moments along with healthy dollops of humor and humanity. Much of those latter points come from Connery’s Malone, the seasoned mentor to the rest of the team (“What are you prepared to do now?”). Ennio Morricone provides another in a very long list of superb film scores to accentuate the movie’s numerous key scenes.
There are several liberties taken with the script, of course, for the purposes of storytelling expediency and to amp up some of the action, though none of these detract from the movie. The period of time during which Ness pursued Al Capone is somewhat compressed, for example, as is the number of men who make up “the Untouchables.” It’s four in the film, whereas the real team originally numbered ten agents, including Ness himself. The characters played by Connery, Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith were created for the movie. Smith’s character, Oscar Wallace, who pursues the investigation into Capone’s tax records, is based on Frank J. Smith, the treasury agent who helped to bring down the real Capone. Why use a fictional creation rather than a portrayal of the real Smith? Uh, watch the movie.
I just watched this again last night, and–for me, at least–it still holds up. Historically accurate? In the very broad strokes. A great thriller? Absolutely. If you haven’t yet seen this one, do yourself a favor and check it out.
“What are you prepared to do?”