Or, Of Course I'll Have a Drink--It's Prohibition!

So, you've searched high and low for a Kevin Costner movie that isn't rubbish while at the same time has nothing to do with baseball. The Untouchables, released in 1987, is as close as you're going to get.

Costner stars as Elliot Ness, Prohibition-era Treasury department G-Man set against famous arch-nemesis bad guy, Al Capone. He and his band of plucky federal agents tear through the streets, clubs, courts, and speakeasies of 1930's Chicago (and in one scene, Canada) in this now-classic tale of cops and robbers.

Rated R in the U.S., it runs 119 minutes of paint, mohaskas, and good old-fashioned violence, but virtually nothing in the way of dames.

The Good, the Bad, and Robert DeNiro

A lot of famous names playing the famous names in this picture. Check out the top-billed cast of characters:

Along with many others in lesser roles, they collectively created some memorable moments with the help of these other thugs, stealing from the crafts services table:

The Story Goes...

The film is based on the book of the same title by the man himself, Elliot Ness, with the assist from Oscar Fraley and Paul Robsky. By any reasonable account, loosely based.

I will not recount the film scene for scene--why then would you go and see it--but just a synopsis. It will be hard to give too much away from a "historical" standpoint, as it's fairly common knowledge that Capone isn't getting shot up in a glorious one-on-one shoot out with Ness. The man went down for tax evasion and died of tertiary syphillis in prison.

Now then-in a heavily corrupt Chicago, everyone is on the take minus Elliot Ness, sent in by the Feds to clean up Capone's crime syndicate. He gets a mentor in the form of Sean Connery's James Malone, an Irish beat-cop with a street savvy hitherto unknown to most treasury officers. The two assemble a small team of virtuous agents, performing their duties out of bribery's reach. They cannot be bought or otherwise intimidated--hence the group moniker.

Some of them die--this is hand-told cinema here, so an avid filmgoer should know who's going to get it within the first twenty minutes--some do not. Ultimately, there are enough left to see Capone convicted in court of massive tax evasion.

Not Much to It, Then

No, there isn't. Don't look for complex characters in this film outside of James Malone, and don't look too closely at James Malone. It's good v. bad all the way here, you'll have no trouble knowing whom to root for.

Costner turns in a decent performance as the clean-jeans all-American cop, obsessed with bringing down Capone, but not so obsessed that you read much in the way of hamartia into his face. You don't read much of anything in his face, but that's ok in this flick--he's supposed to be single minded.

Connery does damn fine work here, for which he won a best-supporting Oscar. His character is well-played, very watchable, and far, far cooler than the stiff-necked Ness's. He's all charm here, delivering some fantastic lines that I'll recount further on. It's probably worth noting that this role, unlike so, so many of his others, puts his character and his brogue within an almost reasonable geographic distance from each other.

Garcia and Smith do fine as well--they have less to do, but that which they do they are perfectly cast for. Garcia is playing a tough guy, but not an ass. He's a marksman, and the few moments spent setting that up in the beginning definitely pay off later. His friendship with accountancy-minded Smith culminates in a great scene where the latter charges the enemy down with a shotgun, his anger finally getting the better of his caution. The worm turns, as it were.

Without a doubt, though, you have to love DeNiro's Capone. Over the top, dripping with the mafiaso criminality he reigned in and made sophisticated for subsequent films such as Heat and Goodfellas, he's violent, low, and eminently entertaining. Your introduction to him is a scene where he is delivering a speech on baseball--what did I say at the beginning of this writeup?--to his cronies, seated around a large table smoking large cigars. He carries a bat. There is a traitor among the group. They meet. Enough said.

Memorable Moments

Plenty of great lines here, some so memorable you'll recognize them from their parodies; they pop up a great many places. One can't see this film now without thinking of Homer's Beer Baron. For example:

  • The line, "This is a raid!" spoken in many prior and subsequent films. It accompanies the turning over of barrels of illegal booze, the hacking apart of things with axes, everything you've come to expect.
  • DeNiro's line,"I want him DEAD! I want his family DEAD! I want his house burnt down to the GROUND!" Also parodied in several pictures.
  • Connery's famous swatch of dialogue with Ness in a Church:

    "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!"

All great stuff, to be sure, and plenty of other wonderful bits of dialogue courtesy of Mr. Mamet, who can do it when he tries.

But most famously, as true film denizens will squeal, is the scene lifted quite shamelessly out of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin.

Known to cinema studies students as the Odessa Steps Sequence, DePalma transports it to a train station in Chicago where Ness is awaiting the arrival of Capone's bookkeeper. The runaway baby carriage is the main fixture you'll recognize--along with slow-motion shots of the screaming mother, blazing guns, and murdered bystanders. All (of course) resulting in no harm to the child. It's pure theft--though in film they call it homage.

The Verdict

It's a classic. It has great weaknesses, of course, but you should know it just to be versed in modern American cinema. A bit trashy, grossly oversimplified, and predictable as all-get-out, I still enjoy watching it and never turn it off when it's on.

It lacks the intelligence of Miller's Crossing, the breadth of Chinatown, and the heart of Road to Perdition, three other "modern" noir films, but can't be kicked out of the family.

For fun, compare the Untouchables' version of Frank Nitti to Road to Perdition's. I prefer Stanley Tucci's rendition, myself.

Drinks on the house for www.imdb.com

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