A comic strip detective finds his life increasingly complicated as he investigates the notorious Big Boy Caprice’s mob.
Every once in a while you come across a movie that, while it may have some flaws, you can’t help but really, truly, thoroughly enjoy yourself to forgive it almost every one of those flaws. “Dick Tracy” was one of those movies for me. This is a movie that sort of panders to a cinephile crowd; they expect you to have a general knowledge of cinema, or at least a basic understanding of 30s and 40s serials. This film is based on comic strip that debuted in 1931 before branching out to a radio program and eventually film serials. This film’s very soul seems to yearn with nostalgia for those times and types of stories.
There are silly moments, exciting action packed sequences, bizarre and even ludicrous characters, and some rather touching parts too, but really, the unique and influential tone is what sold me on this film. This movie is probably at least partially responsible for the greenlighting of comic book films like “Sin City” or “300”, because this film utilizes the same (for lack of a better term) ‘comic-realism-look’ extremely well- (where the film stylizes so much of the world, that the world feels more fake than real, but that in itself becomes somewhat real in the world of the film). This film is so heavily stylized that it is almost impossible to ignore. However, I also feel like the style could be very distracting for some people, so I understand why this film has a rather middling rating on IMDb.
For me, this felt a lot like a cartoonier version of “Raiders of the Lost Arc”, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, or “The Rocketeer.” The villains and scenarios were larger than life; the good guy was always in the right while the bad guy was always in the wrong; and the way in which the story concludes felt like cheap formulaic Hollywood schmultz… but I could help but love it all the way through because it scratched all those nostalgia itches I never knew I had.
“Take the bad men away. They scare me.”
Famous detective Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) is dragged into a case that involves a powerful mobster named Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino, “Glengarry Glenn Ross”). As he investigates further, his work forces him to become involved with a young child known simply as Kid (Charlie Korsmo, “Hook”) and a seductive femme fatale figure named Breathless Mahoney (Madonna, “Die Another Day”) much to the chagrin of his longtime girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). Will Tracy succumb to the violent underworld, or will he triumph over evil and save the day?
I think the main reason I really liked this movie was because it was so unapologetic in the way that it told its story. It’s campy and sometimes the humor can be a little crass, but the film feels like a comic strip come to life. The production design is so spot-on, even down to the characters that have larger-than-life features (think Robert Altman’s “Popeye”). Dustin Hoffman (“Straw Dogs”) and Mandy Patinkin (“The Princess Bride”) both show up in this film, but they were so heavily made up to look like cartoon characters I didn’t know it was them until two or three scenes after they’d made their debut. It’s easy to see why this film won Oscars for Art Direction and Makeup.
Because the world in which this is set feels so fantastical, I kind of loved the fact that Al Pacino completely oversold this role. There are a few roles that I really love Pacino in (“Serpico”, “The Godfather”), but there are other times, particularly in his newer roles, when I feel like he’s just given up caring and is in it for the paycheck (“Jack and Jill”). In this film, I was absolutely in love with his performance. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the crassest part of the film, but he’s also so over the top that every time he was onscreen I couldn’t help but chuckle. He’s the mustache-twirling villain turned up to eleven, and while I could understand some people taking offense at some of the things he does (he’s a bit of a misogynist), remember that he is supposed to be a cartoony bad guy, and in this cartoony world that overblown behavior of ‘you’re my property’ becomes part of the reason we root against him. He is such a bad guy that it becomes ridiculous, and in that aspect, the performance is wonderful.
Warren Beatty was wonderful in this movie too; his onscreen presence so perfectly captured that essence of detective on the hunt. I feel like I’m not as familiar with Beatty’s work as I ought to be, but in the few films I’ve seen him in (“Bonnie and Clyde”, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) he was pretty good. His comedic timing in a few of the scenes was absolutely hysterical, and his onscreen chemistry with Glenne Headly really made me want them to end up together.
(MILD SPOILERS ABOUT ENDING)
Even the way this film ends, with Tracy running off to solve another crime, nothing changing between him and his girlfriend Trueheart, I couldn’t help but smile. This is a story that has crafted a world that feels like it existed before we got here, and will exist after we leave, but it will always be there for us if we want to come back to it. This film is full of sequences that end in cliffhangers, and heroic fight scenes where our protagonists perform inhuman feats. This story is told with such a yearning for the golden era, that I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in its dream.
I think this movie will be polarizing; you’ll either love it or hate it. If you need your characters to be played straight, then this will definitely not work for you. If you like stylized films with a ton of heart, you will probably really enjoy this.
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