REVIEW: Dick Tracy (1990)

Maverick police detective Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) goes head-to-head with crime boss Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino). While Tracy attempts to persuade Caprice’s girlfriend Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) to turn evidence against him, an anonymous third party makes a play for control of the city’s criminal underworld.

Pity poor Disney. In 1990 they released Warren Beatty’s colourful live-action adaptation of newspaper comic strip Dick Tracy, with openly declared plans to ape the success of Warner Bros’ Batman (released the previous year) and establish an all-new Hollywood action franchise. They wanted a mainstream smash hit. Beatty gave them what is arguably the world’s first arthouse comic book movie. Beatty did not simply adapt Dick Tracy. He visually translated it, creating a film that – more than any other before it – re-created the look and tone of the colourful, exaggerated comic book aesthetic to live-action cinema. The film is willfully artificial. Half of the cast wear prosthetic make-up to resemble their stylised comic strip counterparts. The action is slightly sped up too, giving it all a cartoon-like and unrealistic flavour. Perhaps most remarkably of all, the entire film is costumed, designed and lit in just seven colours. Throw in five musical numbers written by Stephen Sondheim and you have one of the more unusual attempts at a summer blockbuster Hollywood has attempted. In a small consolation for Disney, at least the Danny Elfman orchestral score sounds an awful lot like Batman.

The non-realist take on the material actually makes the source material sing. This feels like an old newspaper comic strip brought to life. The storyline is relatively simple but entertaining. The characters are broadly drawn and uncomplicated. Altogether it feels like genuinely breezy fun. The actors seem to be visibly having a great time engaging in such heightened performances. Beatty wisely plays Tracy straight, allowing for the film’s more zany excesses to be anchored safely around him. By contrast Pacino plays Caprice to a grotesque level of over-acting, oozing a sort of slimy, mean villainy out of his extensive prosthetic make-up and padded costume. Pacino is, first and foremost, a theatre actor, and Dick Tracy seems to represent his one chance to appropriately exploit those particular skills on screen. Charlie Korsmo is great as “the Kid”, a nameless street urchin picked up by Tracy during the film’s early scenes. Korsmo was a fantastic child actor with a huge amount of natural charisma on screen. I liked him here, as well as in What About Bob? and Hook, and I always thought it a shame that he quit acting as an adolescent. I would love to see what kind of performances he might have pulled off as an adult.

The rest of the film’s cast acquit themselves admirably – particularly Glenne Headly as Tracy’s ever-patient girlfriend Tess and Dustin Hoffman as a comically low-talking gangster named Mumbles. The one sore spot is, rather predictably, Madonna. Dick Tracy catches her at her career apex: her recording career between the huge commercial hits Like a Prayer and Erotica, and her Blond Ambition world tour was taking place while Dick Tracy opened in cinemas. In the film she seems trying to be somewhat like Marilyn Monroe, but it doesn’t tonally fit the rest of the film and Madonna’s acting talents simply are not sufficient to overcome the ‘oh look, it’s Madonna’ factor. She is, rather strangely, too iconic to be an actor; not in this particular role, at any rate. On the other hand she can sing, and is a boon to the film’s Sondheim numbers.

Walt Disney Pictures may not have gained their comic book franchise, but instead viewers got something a lot more bold and fascinating. Dick Tracy is a lot of fun. It’s bright, confident and distinctive. While subsequent film productions have attempted to reflect a comic book aesthetic, including Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) and Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005), none have come close to doing it quite so wonderfully.

One thought on “REVIEW: Dick Tracy (1990)

  1. Possibly because I saw it on a small screen where the fact that it was very pretty was less impressive, I’ve never been a big fan of the film. The main thing that bugged me about it, though, was that they put so much work into creating the look of the villains in the beginning – and then Flattop, one of the least interesting, wipes them all out. I don’t remember much that happened after that.

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