Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
After the enormous success of 1989’s Batman, a slew of comic book hero films became inevitable. Actually, we never got the onslaught I expected, but more than a few popped onto screens - and were promptly forgotten.
The first major post-Batman release came out for the summer of 1990. Touted as the major flick of that season, Warren Beatty’s take on Dick Tracy had a lot going for it. The movie featured Beatty himself in the title role as well as many big names in villainous roles. Al Pacino took on the main baddie, and Dustin Hoffman provided a semi-cameo as accomplice Mumbles. Lesser lights like James Caan and Paul Sorvino also showed up for short stints.
The movie even boasted Madonna as the femme fatale, and she sure did her best to promote the flick. She put out an album called I’m Breathless that included a few songs from the film but mostly offered material “inspired” by the flick. This included the megahit “Vogue”, and Maddy also pushed the movie hard during her enormously successful “Blonde Ambition” tour that summer.
It didn’t matter, as Tracy failed to live up to expectations. The movie didn’t truly bomb; it managed to gross a passable $103 million. However, that didn’t approach the $251 million heights of Batman, and Tracy failed to even be the biggest success of 1990. Actually, it landed seventh on that list as it lost out to much less heralded flicks like Home Alone and Dances With Wolves - not exactly what everyone thought would happen.
Perhaps Tracy failed to light up box offices simply because it wasn’t a very good movie. Though it seemed reasonably entertaining as a whole, the picture never became anything very compelling or distinctive. It appeared like a relentlessly average enterprise.
Tracy follows the titular hero as he attempts to clean up the city of sakj. Primarily this means he takes on top crime boss Big Boy Caprice (Pacino). He just took over the rackets run by Lips Manlis (Sorvino), which includes his nightclub and star attraction, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
And that’s basically the whole plot! Granted, some subplots occurred as well. Early in the film, Tracy meets the Kid (Charlie Korsmo), a tough orphan who warms Dick’s heart and becomes his apprentice of sorts. We also encounter a modest love triangle that concerns commitment-phobe Tracy, his long suffering girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley), and seductive Breathless. However, most of the story remains where it belongs: on the hero and the villain.
Dick Tracy clearly took many cues from Batman. In many ways, their visuals couldn’t look much different. Batman featured an exceedingly dark universe, while everything in Tracy sported bright and cartoony colors. But both shared the fact that they showed exceedingly stylized worlds, so the locale ultimately reminded me a little too much of Gotham City.
The basic story seemed like a moderate case of déjà vu as well. In Batman, a criminal toppled an established boss to take over his rackets and battle the hero. That’s basically what we find in Tracy. Admittedly, I can’t criticize Tracy heavily for this area, since plenty of movies recycle similar plots, but it seemed particularly uninventive to simply duplicate what we already saw in Batman.
While I thought these areas showed clear “inspiration” from Batman, one could argue that I just imagined the similarities. One could argue that if they both didn’t use Danny Elfman as the composer. One could argue that if Elfman didn’t just write the same score a second time. Oh, the Tracy music didn’t literally offer a note-for-note replication, but boy are they a lot alike!
It seemed very obvious that all behind Tracy tried hard to get that Batman mojo working for them; I sense they had the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Unfortunately, this didn’t work. For one, as a director, Beatty’s no Tim Burton. He lacked the flair and panache to pull off the gripping stylization found in Burton’s work. To be sure, Tracy’s city seemed like an interesting place, but it came across as self-consciously artsy to me. Beatty shoved the whole comic book theme in our faces too much, and it felt more like a gimmick than anything else.
In addition, the characters simply weren’t as interesting. Tracy himself was pretty much a bore, and Caprice lacked much real personality. To be sure, neither remotely compared to the richness of Batman or the Joker.
The acting didn’t help. Actually, Beatty seemed decent as Tracy; it’s simply hard to do anything with such a drab character. Pacino provided very little flair as Caprice, however. He yelled a lot and acted obnoxious, but that was about it. He provided none of the spark and gleeful energy Jack Nicholson showed in Batman.
Probably the most entertaining acting found in Tracy came from Hoffman’s Mumbles. The role amounted to little more than a cameo, but it was a very amusing and entertaining one. Mumbles emerged as one of the few engaging and lively characters in the entire piece.
As for Madonna - well, I do love her music, but I can’t say I think much of her acting. She did decently as Breathless; the cartoony nature of the project matched up nicely with her less-than-stellar skills. However, she failed to make much of a mark with the role, though she could have walked away with the film.
Really, Dick Tracy felt like so many missed opportunities. Despite all of the griping I just provided, I can’t say I disliked the movie. However, I can’t really say I liked it, either. At best, the film provided a watchable and moderately entertaining experience. Unfortunately, it seemed like a serious case of “been there, done that”, as the movie did little more than ride on the coattails of prior successes. Unquestionably, I’ve seen many worse comic book based films, but Dick Tracy remains a lackluster piece of work nonetheless.