The Good: Pace, Moments of acting, Tone
The Bad: Plot, General Character Issues
The Basics: A fine film with competent acting, characters and plot in a standard morality play in 1930s Chicago.
Whenever I get into a foul mood, I go to get movies out of the library and I look for something violent. Sometimes when I do that, I want something that will make my heart beat a little faster, something where there were people with guns in just about every scene. I've not yet seen Reservoir Dogs and my hope once upon a time when I saw The Untouchables was that I'd be able to find that to satisfy my once-yearly desire to see something violent, action-filled and bloody. I suppose I'm no worse off for seeing it.
That's not to say The Untouchables is terribly violent. It isn't, at least not by comparison. But it has enough action to keep one watching it. In fact, the rate at which things happen in the film is nice; there's always something happening in the movie and that makes it easy to keep the attention of a viewer.
Basically, the film is the pursuit of gangster Al Capone by Elliot Ness. This fictionalized version has the U.S. Treasury Officer coming into Chicago, enlisting a streetsmart cop, Malone, and searching for a way to bust the mob kingpin. As Ness becomes more successful, Capone becomes more desperate, hunting down the inner circle of Ness' group.
The tone of the film is as obvious as the plot: it's a pretty standard good vs. evil play. What succeeds about the tone is that it explores the blurring of the two. Capone doesn't seem all bad (until he takes a baseball bat to an associate's head) and Ness clearly struggles with doing the right thing. That it is explored is nice, that it is explored well is even better. However, in the end, the truth is, no matter how they accomplish their ends, the bad guys are still motivated by greed and avarice, the good guys have the higher principles of law enforcement working for them.
The movie follows, quite well, the Law of White. The Law of White in moviemaking states that if you're going to dress a character in bright, flashy whites, at some point there will be blood on it.
What fails is the obviousness of the plot and none of the characters seem to be terribly well drawn. The educated viewer knows what happened historically, so it's a matter of how that is pulled off. It's pulled off adequately, but not superlatively. Just like the characters. Their lines are pretty much what we expect from "heroes" and "villains" and little more. The acting is likewise competent, but not terribly superlative.
In truth, The Untouchables is almost an archetypal average movie. It does everything well, but not extraordinarily. It lives up to our expectations, but does not exceed them or enhance our appreciation of history, the action genre or develop an emotional attachment to it.
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© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.