Capone - The Pursuit of Unhappy - Ness
I have always had a penchant for gangster movies, especially those that are based in era's past rather than in a modern setting, so it is no surprise that I am particularly fond of Brian De Palma's exceptional masterpiece "The Untouchables". With the story based on the attempt to bring one of America's most notorious gangsters to rights, "The Untouchables" is a mixture of truth and fiction which blends together to create one of the most engrossing movies to have been made in the last century, yes "The Untouchables" first hit our big screens way back in 1987. That is not to say that this masterpiece doesn't have issues, most notably a couple of unimaginative performances, but as a whole it rises above these and delivers on nearly every level. This makes it all the more surprising that the only Oscar it won was for Sean Connery's performance as best supporting actor.
With corruption and greed sweeping across Chicago, as they are stuck in the midst of the prohibition gloom, not even the police seem adverse to a bribe, especially when the man pulling most of the strings is the ruthless mobster Al Capone (Robert de Niro - Taxi Driver). Desperate to bring law and order back to the streets of the city, a crack force of agents above corruption, labelled "The Untouchables", is banded together under the guidance of federal agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner - American Flyers). Along with old time cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery - Marnie), new recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia - Ocean's Thirteen) and nerdy accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) they set about cleaning up the streets and in particular the underground dealings of Al Capone.
As already mentioned, the story is based on a mixture of fact and fiction, set in the prohibition era when the notorious gangster, Al Capone was at his deadliest controlling not only the criminal activities in Chicago but also numerous police men and political figures. The emphasis of the film is the battle between the newly formed "The Untouchables" and the notorious gangster as they attempt to bring him to justice by any means possible. All of this is fine and for the majority of the film the story does remain the focal point as we watch Ness learn that the only way he will capture his prize is to become as ruthless as the gangster himself. But at times the film does seem to stray from conveying the story and begins to dwell on the magnificent work which went into the set and costume design, which to be honest is a pleasure to watch and the realism of it all helps to make the film very engrossing, but it does spoil the film when for the nth time we are left to marvel at the scenery rather than keeping the story moving along.
With the film focussing firmly on the ruthless criminal activities of Al Capone it is no surprise that the film does not shy away from demonstrating this with a couple of major scenes featuring brutal violence. The first of these memorable scenes sees Capone taking out his anger on one of his henchmen during a board meeting where he goes to work on his head with a baseball bat. This is one of the earliest scenes in the movie and really sets up not only the character of Capone but also the way in which the film would progress. The second of the memorable scenes features Elliot Ness interrogating one of Capone's henchmen and in attempt to move matters along, George Malone blows the head off of another henchman who was already dead, but makes it look like he was alive. Although there is a strong emphasis on the violence, most of it is not shown in front of the camera with the results of it being displayed, which is one of the reasons why "The Untouchables" managed to be awarded a 15 certificate instead of an 18.
There are other elements to the story, including Ness's fear for his wife and child as he takes on the deadly gangster and the teacher pupil relationships between Malone and Ness as the grizzled old policeman teaches the federal agent how to beat Capone as well as his own morals on being an honest policeman. All of these add to make the film work really well on all levels.
For anyone who is not aware of the fate of Al Capone, the way in which the film comes to a climax has a nice twist but for those who are fully aware of Capone's outcome it plays out in quite a predictable but satisfactory manner.
To be honest this is where the film is let down and it is through some satisfactory but ultimately plain performances. In the lead you have Kevin Costner as the crime busting federal agent, and all round good guy, Elliot Ness. As is quite often the case, Costner puts in a very solid and reasonably convincing performance but doesn't quite manage to shine as the star of the film. His characterisation is very good and equally matches that of hiss fellow performers. Also making a less than starry performance but still an adequate one is Andy Garcia as George Stone, the young agent plucked from a list of new recruits. At times Garcia's performance looked more like a rabbit stuck in the middle of the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, but this may be due to this being one of his first major film roles and his inexperience does show.
Undoubtedly the star of the film is Sean Connery as the grizzled old beat cop, Jim Malone. Connery rightly won an Oscar for his performance and with out his performance this film would be left some what lack lustre. Not only is his portrayal of a grizzled old street cop convincing it is also enjoyable making it a pivotal reason why "The Untouchables" is one of the best gangster films out there. Also making a very good performance is Charles Martin Smith as the slightly timid and nerdy federal agent Oscar Wallace, whose main role is as an accountant. For those of you unaware of the Capone story you maybe wondering why an accountant is part of this elite crime force, but this character is very pivotal in the story.
Of course you cannot leave out the character of Al Capone who is magnificently played by Hollywood legend Robert de Niro. De Niro may not put in one of his finest performances as the ruthless crime boss, but it is still one which eclipses nearly all of the performances from the other actors in the movie, except for that of Connery. Not only is De Niro's characterisation absolutely brilliant but his presence fills the screen every time he appears.
Although the film does have a couple of minor weaknesses, it is very hard to find any real major fault with how Brian De Palma has directed "The Untouchables" and so it does deserve all the praise bestowed upon it by numerous film critics. As a rule, De Palma has kept the film moving along at a very good pace, apart from the few minor dalliances with the scenery and costumes, you find yourself being drawn into the film as although it is not overly quick it doesn't give you huge amounts of time to deal with what you have seen. One of his major triumphs is to make "The Untouchables" a gangster movie with a much wider appeal than those such as "Scarface" and "The Godfather". He has achieved this by making the film not just about the brutality of the violence but also by making it a very worthy period drama.
What this all boils down to is that for a film which is now nearly 20 years old "The Untouchables" is still as enjoyable as the first time I watched it all those years ago. Yes it does have a few flaws and it is by no means as good as say "The Godfather" when you compare it against other gangster movies, but what it does do is to make the gangster genre more appealing to a wider audience with it's decent plot, some good performances and exceptional costume and set design. Whether or not this is Brian De Palma's best movie is debatable as his earlier outings with "Scarface" and "Carrie" are equally as good if not better. This is the sort of film which appeal to a wide range of viewers, you of course have the fans of gangster movies, but as a period drama it is excellent and as an interpretation of a true story it is very enjoyable.