'The Untouchables': THR's 1987 Review

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'The Untouchables' (1987)
Straightforward and crisp, 'The Untouchables' is a classically structured good-guy/bad-guy epic.

On June 3, 1987, director Brian De Palma released The Untouchables, based on the true story of how Treasury agent Eliot Ness brought down notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone. Written by David Mamet and starring Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia and Sean Connery (who won an Oscar — his only one — for his role), the film was a critical and commercial success. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

Four police chiefs, three district attorneys, a wad of grand juries couldn't bring Al Capone down. It took a green government graysuit named Eliot Ness to put him away. That irony buttresses this old-fashioned, well-crafted black hats vs. white hats shootout.

Paramount's going to have to hire more armored cars to transport The Untouchables' considerable box-office booty to its already teeming [Beverly Hills] Cop [2] vaults.

Straightforward and crisp, The Untouchables is a classically structured good-guy/bad-guy epic, pitting the square, wet-behind-the-ears Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) vs. America's most notorious, ruthless and powerful Prohibition-time gangster, Al Capone (Robert De Niro).

While overtly melodramatic, The Untouchables is a perceptive and hard-driven actioner. It's an intriguing character confrontation, loaded with ironies, both personal and social — on one side, the flamboyantly powerful gangster whose booze smuggling made him a popular hero amid a Prohibition-weary public; on the other side, a faceless outsider whose straitlaced, insistent dedication threatened to overturn the town's well-oiled troughs.

As Eliot Ness, Kevin Costner plays it tight to the vest. Those who recall Robert Stack's superbly confident portrayal and hail-hearty voice in the TV series may be initially turned off by this interpretation. But to Costner's considerable credit, he defers to the staid traits of character throughout; ultimately, it is these small, relentlessly Sunday School qualities that make his ultimate victory against the seemingly invincible Capone believable — the tortoise vs. the hare.

Throughout, the scrupulous Ness is nevertheless shrewd enough to surround himself with a trusted yet unorthodox team. Sean Connery as a wizened Irish beat cop, Charles Martin Smith as an eager beaver accountant, and Andy Garcia as a fearless rookie cop round out Ness' team of “Untouchables” — men who are most out of orbit in Capone's bloody Chicago universe.

The Untouchables' most entertaining scenes, unquestionably, center around these superb supporting characters; Connery and Smith, in particular, both make the most of their juicy roles. As Al Capone, Robert De Niro is mesmerizingly intimidating — characteristically, De Niro gained 30 pounds for the role, had his hairline altered, acquired a scar. One instant he's a populist-styled protector, the next, a rapacious killer — De Niro makes these instant transitions frighteningly believable. When he's on the screen, wide-eyed and smiling, your instinct is to duck and cover.

Also deserving praise on the bad guy's side is Billy Drago as the psycho, trigger-happy Frank Nitti — his mean and vicious glint is razor sharp.

Despite one excessively showy and laughable slo-mo, Potemkin-like scene — Ness wipes out a horde of thugs while rescuing a cascading baby carriage — director Brian De Palma brings The Untouchables in tight and true, in the spirit of Ness himself. Unlike Scarface, no one is likely to claim that this film's considerable violence is gratuitous.

Technical credits, like the supporting character portrayals, are well realized and particular. Marilyn Vance's costumes, from the luridly vivid gangster regalia to Ness' Sears-style graywear, are starkly expressive. Meticulous details, contrasting further the character consistencies, are evident throughout in the production design — credit visual consultant Patrizia von Brandenstein for the expressive period nuances. Ennio Morricone's astringent score, featuring a harsh and lyrical trumpet blend, is wonderfully piercing, the perfect sounds for this well-contrasted film.— Duane Byrge, originally published June 1, 1987

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