The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Untouchables

So Prohibition, huh? That must have sucked. People wanted to drink, but the government said it was illegal to do so. The government agencies and police forces were tasked with limiting the bootleggers, but that was easier said than done. The most famous? Eliot Ness, a Treasury agent who became famous for helping take down Chicago gangster Al Capone. His story was turned into a successful TV show in the late 1950s and early 1960s and maybe most famously in a feature film, 1987's The Untouchables.

It's 1930 and Prohibition has turned Chicago into a warring city of dead bodies and rival gangsters fighting for control. The most powerful though is Al Capone (Robert De Niro), ruling the city and the influx of alcohol with an iron fist. Where there's demand, he's got the supply. A U.S. Treasury agent, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), has been called in to bring Capone to justice, hopefully bringing his crime empire down with him. Ness, idealistic and a little naive, struggles with where to start, meeting dead end after dead end as he discovers how deep Capone's empire goes. Obsessed with doing his job and doing it well, Ness keeps on, recruiting a small group of agents and police officers, including a tough Chicago beat cop, James Malone (Sean Connery), who knows the streets better than anyone. As he quickly finds out, Ness doesn't know how deep he'll have to go to accomplish his mission, especially when the bodies start to pile up.

From director Brian De Palma, this is one of those perfect guy's guy movies. It is based on Ness' real-life exploits as his crew of Untouchables took the battle to Capone in Chicago between 1929 and 1931. Yes, time is compressed, some names are changed here and there, but the point is the same. It has just about everything going for it. 'Untouchables' was filmed on location in Chicago (looks gorgeous), and it feels like Depression Era Chicago, picking up two Oscar nominations for Costume Design and Art Direction/Set Decoration. Everything from the background on the streets to the cars to the time-appropriate costumes (Armani suits never looked so good), it all adds layer after layer to the film. Also picking up an Oscar nomination is the score from composer Ennio Morricone.Listen to his full soundtrack HERE. I love the sweep of it, quiet, moving Morricone balanced with bigger, epic Morricone.

At the forefront of 'Untcouhables' is a great pairing of stars. Costner is one of the biggest stars of the 1980s with everything from Bull Durham to Field of Dreams, Silverado to No Way Out. Connery was a Hollywood legend, the firmly established star. Their on-screen dynamic is an underrated part of the success here that can get lost in the shuffle. Costner's Eliot is a hard-driving, hard-working idealist. He wants to accomplish his mission, but do it the right way, not knowing how filthy the world is he finds himself in. Connery's Malone is the flat-footed beat cop with a long career behind him. He knows everyone, knows all the secrets and inner-workings. Eliot Ness is looking for help while Malone is looking for a reason to become re-energized again after years of watching greed and corruption poison Chicago. Their scenes together crackle, dialogue just brimming with energy and plenty of great one-liners.

Joining Costner and Connery as the Untouchables are a very young Andy Garcia and a scene-stealing Charles Martin Smith. Garcia plays George Stone, a cop fresh out of the Police Academy and a dead-shot with a pistol, his Italian background hinted at but never fully explained. Garcia's Stone is inherently cool, a man of few words who lets his smirk and his pistol do his talking. Martin Smith plays Oscar Wallace, a Treasury accountant/bookkeeper who jumps at the chance to do some actual field work with the Untouchables. It's four cool characters, a great dynamic among the quartet, an odd couple men on a mission grouping that works perfectly.

Committing to gaining weight to really look the part, De Niro is a fine choice to play infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone. It is a part that would have been easy to be exaggerated, but De Niro knows how far to push it. Capone is hot-tempered, fiery and barely keeps his emotions in check. The part is mostly long scenes, monologues really, where De Niro gets to flex a bit. Richard Bradford plays the police commissioner caught in the middle of it all and maybe playing all sides, Patricia Clarkson plays Ness' pregnant wife, an uncredited Clifton James as the prosecuting district attorney, and Billy Drago as Frank Nitti, Capone's chief enforcer and accomplished killer.

With the actual history here condensed from a few years to seemingly a few months, we get an episodic story that covers a ton of ground in the 119-minute movie. More than the performances, the music, the period appropriate....well, everything, 'Untouchables' always stands out for me because of the well-staged set pieces. An ambush near the Canadian border is a gem, the machine guns rattling like crazy to Morricone's swooping score. The highlight though has Ness and Co. looking for Capone's bookkeeper, desperately trying to get out of town, at Union Station. The action, the drama, the nods to classic films (Battleship Potempkin), and the slow motion all build to this almost unbearable tension. Maybe it isn't the most unified script/story, but the set pieces help keep things together beginning to end. A gem, a must-see for fans of Costner, Connery, gangster movie fans and any Chicagoans.

The Untouchables (1987): ****/****

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