The Untouchables ★★★½

I don’t like straight shot mob flicks very much, however, what I do like are directors willing to take a risk solely for the sake of artistic achievement and re-invent such an easily successful genre that, well, if the past is any indication can probably make your little mob picture one of the most renowned films of all time simply by following the established formulas (yes, while I know it invented most of those cliches, that is a slight against Goodfellas), but The Untouchables is kind of neither and that’s a big issue. I mean, at first with its obvious western roots, knife-sharp wit (well, when it comes to everything other than dialogue that is), and core and earnest beliefs about how “It’s all in the family”, things gave me serious Once Upon a Time In America vibes, which, if I’m honest was probably better than anything else it could have tried all by itself, but we really don’t get enough commitment to that beyond a few complex sequences for it to really change my opinion on things in general, so no, if the film is any kind of take on the modern mob ethos it would be an action genre flick first and a mob one second, considering the former is the realm into where most of the well-crafted (especially Western-y) setups devolve anyhow.

And Brian De Palma certainly does nothing better than elevating genre flicks into feeling like higher art I will give him that, and he tries his ass off here through camerawork, editing, and a general filmic literacy (I mean, I don’t want it to be at all obscured as to how drop-dead gorgeous Stephen H. Burum crafts this film to be as well, nor do I want the aggressive and poignant use of profile shots, POV, dutch angles and dollies, and the performances pulled by De Palma to go upraised) but when every ten seconds the entire frame is obscured by squibs and bullet holes there really is only so far you can stretch that idea. Sure, you can also imbue within these moments some of the best stake building strategies known to man, and ones that I even find myself constantly at the altar of in terms of maintaining a steady stream, and sometimes, almost looping cycle of conflicts and subplots, combined with a near-constant emphasis on scenery changes and an elevation in the production value as the story also ratchets up in both excitement and drama, but one thing no one can outrun, out-shoot, out-shout, or what have you is the goofiness of it all.

I’ll try to keep this quick, but with silly contradictions that, in my opinion, though it can and maybe should be disputed, go beyond simple nitpicking is mostly what sunk The Untouchables for me. Just that the order and way in which our lead characters die couldn’t be less like an actual mob strike and more like an established genre norm (cherry on top being all the pensive reflection and self-destruction following these deaths to try and retroactively make the bond between the band of heroes stronger than it was during the time they were all on-screen together, a time where it seemed they were more interested in espionage and action than personal intimacy. Oh, and for one more bonus throw in that cliche of a team taking a picture together for no reason, other than plot convenience of course, so that then at the end of the film the ones who didn’t die can look sorrowfully at it before a fade to black, like for goodness’ sakes fucking Wonder Woman did that one, like have you no self respect Mamet?), just that if you make self-aware jokes about the film’s tonal seriousness and the purity of your lead character earlier on (chiefly with the tongue-and-cheek, heavy on the cheek line “Let’s do some good” from Costner’s Ness) you then shouldn’t spend the rest of the film unironically raising him up to god-like standards without a speck of anything besides actual awe at his familial values and utter saintly hood, and while yes, I know he does in a way become the “crooked man” who maims and murders he always promised he wouldn’t become, but, when you compare him to Connery or any other of our equally empathetic heroes it is still very apparent his purity is sky high, and hell, most of what he does abides fully by probable cause and general legality so I don’t know what else to tell you really.

Like anytime there isn’t immediately a gun in someone’s face that whole idea about stakes goes completely away too because of the so-called “laws of the street”. It’s simple as this, you can’t very well have me fear Capone and his methods if you have him in one scene say he wants to kill Ness and his family, burn their house and piss on the ashes and not only not have him do just that when he had the chance, but then also have him just take abuse and slurs from Ness when he prances into Capone’s HQ and has a nice little chat without ever having a finger laid on him, now can you? And I get it is a bit more complex because we have the actual historical facts including the written, unwritten laws about sending messages in the mob to deal with, but from a screenwriting perspective, this is still no less than when you craft one of those stock assassin characters that fire on all cylinders against extras but then wants to do nothing but talk shit out when they’re up against a protagonist.

Oh, and did I mention there are plenty of Deus Ex Machinas employed on top of all that, like take as an example Andy Garcia gets shot, is bleeding excessively as he rolls into a ditch, Morricone (may he rest in peace himself) strikes up the band like the man is dead, all the actors get fully weepy, but then, and offscreen mind you, the man totally recovers with no visible scarring or debilitation to any part of his body, like that’s not a subversion like you seem to think it is, that’s some unabashed, or more accurately quite abashed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker shit right there.

But yeah, I think you get it by now that the screenplay doesn’t surprise (though I can’t restrain myself and must say one more thing about the hilarious ending where it seems David Mamet was writing, looked down at his watch and realized he could get the rest of the script done by his lunch break in five minutes and so forwent any substantial, or, from what I’ve read, accurate legal comeuppance for Capone, and instead following the jury switch has Capone’s attorney just serendipitously yelled out that they change their defense plea from innocent to guilty against Capone’s will, like seriously wtf?!?), but by and large the whole film doesn’t have any nuance either, De Niro is De Niro, when he is monologuing with a bat in his hand about playing for the team, as great as that scene was, you know he’s about to bust some lackey’s head in (but also can someone explain who the fuck and why the fuck that scene happened contextually, I’m still trying to figure it out), Morricone will do that sweeping emotionally effective thing of his (though, I will say the world may still not be ready for Machine Gun Lullaby, that is a stellar piece of score), Costner will no doubt drool over himself while sleep walking through his role, maybe show his ass once or twice.

Basically, and back to that opening comparison, it doesn’t obey either acceptable standard for this genre, as The Untouchables is a film too formula centric to be avant-garde, but too auteur to be anything other than it is. What it is is a sprawling De Palma epic that feels so impossibly small and just nothing after being five minutes removed from the credits, that, well, all that actually sticks with you is the stupid shit, and the stupid shit, when you get into it, paints this thing pretty clearly as the store brand version of much better flicks, and I don’t know about you but I prefer to have Coca Cola™ in my cup than that flat, plain “Cola” from the Aldi. Watch order does matter though, maybe if I had seen this three months ago it could seem perfect, so good on you if you like it, but this is just groan-worthy cinema to me.

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