Saturday, March 6, 2021

Kevinography, part 11: "The Untouchables" (1987)

This is part 11 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: In 1930, Chicago is in the grip of Al Capone and his thugs. Elliot Ness (Costner), Treasury Agent, is fresh on the job trying to bust Capone. But the police is corrupted to the core, and so, when Ness meets honest cop Jimmy (Sean Connery), he founds a new task force of untouchable cops. Taking the fight to Capone carries its own risks, though, as the mobster is gunning for lives and families....

Analysis: This classic from 1987 is famous for being the one that finally, after many nominations, netted Sean Connery the Academy Award. As so often is the case, the award must be understood more for the life's work than the movie at hand, as Connery is good, but then, he's good in any movie.

The praise "The Untouchables" earned in 1987, however, is not entirely justified from a 2021 vantage point. Of course, as with any Costner movie, it is long, over two hours. But that's not the problem in and of itself. It's just that it isn't very good. It's not the cinematography; that's very solid, and there's even some unconventional stuff going on that was kind of new in 1987, like rotating the camera around the characters sitting at a table (something Tarantino would do much better in "Reservoir Dogs"), Dutch Angles or first person shots.

No, the problem is the general premise and the script. The idea of the movie is that Capone has corrupted the whole city, therefore you need outsiders to get at him. So far, so good, but these outsiders operate under some very questionable assumptions that, in recent years, can't really be bore anymore.

The general conceit is that the key to good police work is to break rules and employ violence. Connery's character is very open about this, asking Ness how far he is ready to go when he reaches the limits of what the law allows, instructing him to shoot to kill, casually dismember bodies and torture prisoners. He's framed as the good guy all the way, his methods being framed as right, and everyone being squeamish about it - like the commander of the Canadian Mounties - just not getting it. Routinely, vital intelligence is gained by beating and threatening people.

From today's vantage point, the movie also has a strange whimsicalness to it. Violence is framed like in a Western, like when the whimsical bookkeeper shoots up several hardcore gangsters and even beats one up with his shotgun, only to take a sip of the damaged booze barrel. In these moments, violence is employed almost as a joke, until the movie snaps back and wants me to care about it again.

Another problematic aspect is the gender dynamics. A general element of the times, women exist only to be protected and to care for the male characters. Ness' wife is evacuated under traumatic circumstances because her husband really doesn't care much for her well-being, and the only reaction she has is to wish him great success getting at Capone. Maleness generally is framed as superior and desirable, and its deeply mired in violence.

The shootouts are, on the other hand, spectacularly filmed. There is good use of slow-motion, the right amount of gore to shock, the setups are suspenseful - especially in the legendary shoot-out at the station - but are constantly undercut by the messages and the tonal shifts of the movie.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the character of Al Capone himself, where a wasted Robert deNiro is trying to form scenery chewing dialogue into something coherent which never materializes. The scenes with Capone are too scattered to work, and the movie would be better eschewing the character completely and making him into a more menacing background presence.

The obviousness of the script also works in other areas. I like that the movie tries to address the role of the media in all that, but the caricatures that result from this, with their fake laughs and broad, ugly smiles are just not engaging enough to get me reflect on the issues.

This is not helped by a soundtrack so obvious it could hit you over the head with its themes. When someone's in danger, the soundtrack blares menacing tones, but it's the only indication that something is wring, undercutting the tension. When the heroes are being heroes, heroic tones are laid over everything, and suddenly, everyone's wearing plot armor. Whether or not people can die is telegraphed by the score alone.

Verdict: Indulging in all the wrong kinds of violence and toxic masculinity, this movie aged badly. Don't watch it.


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