MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Dick Tracy'- Beatty’s Arresting Summer Adventure

You gotta give it to the gumshoe: “Dick Tracy” is brash, irresistible fun. Warren Beatty’s vision of a comic strip on film comes in paint box-bright colors with nicely irreverent dialogue, a gaggle of crisp performances and one with million-dollar moxie.

It’s a film of enormous style, with a sure sense of itself. You may not exactly brood about the inner lives of these characters for days after you leave the theater--then again, for better or worse, that may be one of the definitions of a summer movie. To take the words out of the mouth of another Tracy, “There ain’t much meat, but what there is is cherce.”

Two-thirds of “Tracy” (opening citywide Friday) takes place in a sort of ultra-stylized Chicago after dark, but for all its nighttime gorgeousness, it’s still a brighter film than “Batman”; it’s sunny in spirit, not feverish, and it leaves less of a copper-penny taste of nastiness in the mouth. What violence it has is of an old-fashioned, ‘30s movie cops-and-robbers variety, a man with a Thompson submachine gun against a slew of bad ‘uns. While “Dick Tracy” has its own glorious villain, his tone is entirely different from the leering excesses of the Joker; Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice has to be one of the screen’s most extravagantly funny creations.


In a struggle for control of the city between Big Boy and the mysterious faceless mobster, The Blank, “Dick Tracy’s” character villains look eerily like cartoonist Chester Gould’s own: Flattop, Pruneface, Mumbles, The Brow, even the amazing Little Face are perfect down to the last freckle and groove. In contrast, the romantic characters and/or good guys, Beatty as ol’ tomahawk nose himself, Glenne Headly’s Tess Trueheart, Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney, young Charlie Korsmo’s Junior (known for most of the movie as The Kid), Seymour Cassel’s loyal Sam Catchem and James Keane’s Pat Patton, are, more or less, undisguised.

Yet by some magic, none of the villains are immobilized by their elaborate makeup; it seems to have liberated them. It certainly electrified Al Pacino, because clearly, “Dick Tracy” is Pacino’s movie, not Beatty’s and not Madonna’s, individually or together. Madonna’s performance, which in retrospect seems to be songs, salty patter and a collection of artfully struck poses, won’t disappoint her fans, but it may not win her new ones--her acting hasn’t caught up with her charisma. Pacino, on the other hand, is likely to wow the world by pure, inspired, comic invention.

(The screenplay, thick with quotable wit, is credited to Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr., the team responsible for the utterly unmemorable dialogue of “Legal Eagles” and “Top Gun.” Attention is called to the “special consultant” credit given writer Bo Goldman, of “Melvin and Howard,” and “Shoot the Moon.”)

Who could have suspected that a performance of this hilarity lurked behind Al Pacino’s forbidding intensity all these years? “Dog Day Afternoon” may have given more than a hint of it; in “Sea of Love” as Pacino fell all over himself to get out of the way of a possibly murderous Ellen Barkin, there was a shutter-quick glimpse of the funniness in the man. Beatty’s direction--or even the sense of working behind Big Boy’s disguise--may have been the liberating force. Whatever it was, something popped the cork and out spilled this goggle-eyed mobster with a pencil-thin mustache, plastered-down hair and a silhouette roughly like Quasimodo’s.

Watching Big Boy coach Breathless and her klutzy chorines in how to sell a numbah, dancing it for them himself, touching, tweaking, all the while running a nonstop line of Malaprop quotes, “If you ain’t for the people, you can’t buy the people . . . Lincoln!” there is the sense of an actor having the time of his life. (Some of the same fun emanates from Dustin Hoffman’s glowing cameo as Mumbles.)

For his part, Beatty’s Dick Tracy strides through his naughty world like a yellow beacon light. He is a pillar of command in his work and a Hamlet of indecision in what passes for his personal life and Beatty plays him with owlish rectitude. As he had in the comic strip, Tracy has major problems with the “m” word: marriage. Absolutely sticks crosswise in the man’s throat--making him the perfect hero now as well as in the 1930s. The original Dick Tracy’s engagement to Tess Trueheart lasted from 1931 to 1949; this one seems headed in the same direction, in spite of the twinkle to Glenne Headly’s sturdy Tess.

If Tracy can’t quite say yes to Tess, he can at least say no to the indefatigable come-on of Breathless Mahoney. “No grief for Lips?” he asks her sardonically, referring to her recently departed lover/ boss. “I’m wearin’ black underwear,” she points out. She certainly is, and in the face of such provocation, Tracy’s morality is to be admired, unless you’ve come for543650405Facing Breathless, Tracy is stunned but inert. (For a PG-rated film, the brief, silhouetted nudity, steamy dialogue and amount of routine violence is a little stunning as well.)

For fireworks, try the look of the film, under Vittorio Storaro’s exquisite lighting camera work, which renders all the prosthetic makeups of John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler completely real. Richard Sylbert’s production designs seem to have distilled the essence of the ‘30s, without a jot of sentimentality. They’re clean, essential, vivid, yet marvelously theatrical, probably the richest since “Blade Runner.” They’re matched by the playful exaggeration of Milena Canonero’s costumes, which assign a single, all-over hue to each character. To see that hoary scene--a clutch of reporters interviewing their subject on the steps of a courthouse--when one reporter is dressed in electric blue from his shoes to the press card in his hatband, another is in all-orange and another is all in plum, lifts a cliche into something wonderfully witty.

As they invariably do, Stephen Sondheim’s songs may grow on you by frequent repetition--something they’re sure to have. They get their best innings in the lovely duet “What Can You Lose,” begun by Mandy Patinkin’s lovestruck piano player, 88 Keys, and joined by Breathless. Danny Elfman’s soaring score, even though it strikes a few “Batman” memories here and there, seems to be the musical equivalent of Sylbert’s darkly various sets.

So before the tsunami of merchandising hits us, and we can’t stand the sight of one more yellow Fedora or another two-way wrist radio--the way we were Batmanned and E.T.'d to death in stores--let’s have one moment to recognize the pure fun of “Dick Tracy,” the first clear joy of summer.


A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation presented in association with Silver Screen Partners IV. Producer, director Warren Beatty. Executive producers Barrie M. Osborne and Art Linson & Floyd Mutrux. Co-producer Jon Landau. Screenplay Jim Case & Jack Epps Jr., based on characters created by Chester Gould for the “Dick Tracy” comic strip distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc. Camera Vittorio Storaro. Production design Richard Sylbert. Editor Richard Marks. Costumes Milena Canonero. Art director Harold Michelson, set decorator Rick Simpson. Original songs Stephen Sondheim. Music Danny Elfman. Visual effects produced by Michael Lloyd, Harrison Ellenshaw. Special character makeup John Caglione Jr., Doug Drexler. Musical numbers staged by Jeffrey Hornday. Sound Thomas Causey. Special consultant Bo Goldman. With Warren Beatty, Charlie Korsmo, Glenne Headly, Madonna, Al Pacino, R. G. Armstrong, Dustin Hoffman, Seymour Cassel, James Keane, Dick Van Dyke, William Forsythe, Charles Durning, Mandy Patinkin, Ed O’Ross, Kathy Baker, Paul Sorvino, Henry Silva, Michael J. Pollard, Estelle Parsons, Mary Woronov.

Running time: 1 hr. 45 min.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).