The Untouchables (1987)

Review

Why would anybody still want to watch a movie as deeply flawed as The Untouchables? Certainly it’s not for historical accuracy: The real Federal Agent Elliot Ness was perfectly happy to dun mob kingpin Al Capone on tax evasion and avoid the intense gunplay that the movie depicts. It’s not De Palma: Scarface is his better mob picture, and Blow Out has more drama. And Lord knows it’s not the performances: Kevin Costner earned much of his rep as a wet blanket here, and Sean Connery’s stubborn refusal to change his accent for his role is almost comic. Never has an Irish cop sounded so Scottish, though Connery did get the last laugh – he took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Jim Malone.

Why watch? Because despite its flaws, The Untouchables is a magnificent movie about political clout — a worthy subject that Hollywood’s rarely bothered to tackle and usually gets wrong. Clout isn’t bribing a police chief with a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills; it’s making sure the police chief’s son gets a cushy job at your concrete firm, thereby ensuring you’re the low bidder on sidewalk contracts. Clout isn’t hiring hit men to off your worst enemy and toss him in a ditch; it’s buying drinks for a high school buddy who works at the county assessor’s office who just happens to find so many structural problems with your enemy’s grocery store that he’s forced to close shop and leave town. Those aren’t events in The Untouchables, but they echo the kind of emotional noise that David Mamet’s script makes – it’s a revenge fantasy for any person who wondered why they had to suck up to their alderman or local ward heeler just to get their trash picked up on time. Clout isn’t muscle – it’s clever muscle. And The Untouchables understands that cleverness.

Of course it’s set in ‘30s Chicago – that’s where clout was practically invented. Capone (Robert De Niro) is cooly running the liquor interests in what is supposed to be a dry, Prohibition-era burg, when Agent Ness (Costner) is hired to shake up things and nail Capone. Ness’ milquetoast, by-the-book approach to policework gets him precisely nowhere at first – Capone has so much goodwill with the press and enough eyes and ears in the police department that he anticipates Ness’ every move. Enter Malone, an aging beat cop who’s sympathetic to Ness’ cause. When Ness asks him how to nail Capone, Malone responds with one of the movie’s great lines: ‘You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how. They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone.’

So informed, Ness starts assembling his team, which includes police cadet Giuseppe Petri (a fine, understated Andy Garcia) and wimpy government accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). De Palma, always brilliant with violence, escalates the bloodshed as the new team of ‘untouchables’ starts to enjoy some success; in the only scene where De Niro really gets to show off, he lectures his cronies about loyalty as he carries a baseball bat before whacking the weak link in his Outfit but good.

But a funny thing happens in the midst of the struggle between the Feds and the Outfit: Ness and his crew start acting just as immorally as Capone and his men do. ‘They pull a knife, you pull a gun’ – how exactly does that make you the good guy? Are the Untouchables freedom fighters or loose cannons? Mamet and De Palma don’t give a damn. What matters is the battle itself, and the tail end of the film has some wonderfully constructed sequences of violence. The slow-motion ballet of gunplay at the steps of Chicago’s Union Station is serious stuff, but it comically integrates a baby carriage bouncing down between the gunmen, an absurd quote of Potemkin‘s ‘Odessa steps’ sequence. And the courtroom scenes in the film’s last act isn’t nearly as interesting as the climactic battle between Ness and Capone lackey Frank Nitti (played with creepy brilliance by Billy Drago) above the courthouse. Justice doesn’t stand a chance against clever muscle.

Alas, there’s a pat ending where the good guys win, but the film doesn’t make much of it. Indeed, the last lines of the movie suggest that Mamet’s having a laugh at the whole good-evil idea anyhow. When Ness is told that Prohibition – the law he’d fought and killed on behalf of – is going to be repealed, he simply smirks and says, ‘I think I’ll have a drink.’ That, too, is the Chicago way.

The new collector’s edition DVD includes a handful of new and classic behind-the-scenes featurettes.