Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Untouchables (1987)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

The critics and public agree. Brain De Palma's The Untouchables is a must-see masterpiece -- a glorious, fierce, larger-than-life depiction of the mob warlord who rules Prohibition-era Chicago…and the law enforcer who vowed to bring him down.

This classic confrontation between good and evil stars Kevin Costner as federal agent Eliot Ness, Robert DeNiro as gangland kingpin Al Capone and Sean Connery as Malone, the cop who teaches Ness how to beat the mob: shoot fast and shoot first.

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Richard Bradford
Academy Awards: Won for Best Supporting Actor-Sean Connery. Nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Original Score-Ennio Morricone, 1988.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 24 chapters; rated R; 119 min.; $29.99; street date 1/16/01.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Book - Elliott Ness | Score soundtrack - Ennio Morricone

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B/D-

Some movies don’t get much respect during their initial runs but they gain favor as the years pass. Into this category falls Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. As I recall, the movie received pretty mixed reviews when it hit theaters in 1987, but since that time, it seems to have become regarded as a minor classic of the crime/gangster genre.

I won’t quibble with that interpretation. Although The Untouchables falters at times - mainly due to a rather slow start - the movie generally provides a provocative and exciting experience. It’s not quite a great film, but it was largely quite well-done.

Based on the factual efforts of federal agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner), the story focuses on his efforts to nab infamous crime boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). In extremely corrupt Prohibition-era Chicago, Ness builds a team of “Untouchables”: fellow agents who resist the temptations of bribes and who can’t be bought. Ness adds three teammates: grizzled cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), nerdy accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and hot-headed sharpshooter George Stone (Andy Garcia). With this group in tow, Ness starts to clean up the town.

Capone remains his white whale, however, and Ness, et al, spend most of the film in pursuit of him. For the most part, Untouchables offers a fairly standard gangster flick, but it’s made special due to the talents of its actors. Actually, that should be made more specific: I liked the film largely because of the supporting cast. Costner is fine as Ness, and he adds a genuine quality to the role that works, but he doesn’t provide much spark in this rather straight-laced role. De Niro is also good as Capone, but he doesn’t have to reach too far into his bag of tricks for the part.

Connery won his first (and only) Oscar for his work here. While I think this award was essentially a cumulative prize for his terrific career, I can’t deny that Connery provided solid work in Untouchables, and the favor was returned; after a fairly long series of mostly-forgettable films, Untouchables sparked the career renaissance he enjoys to do this day. Frankly, the movie seemed somewhat dull and drab until Connery entered. From that point on, however, it was much more exciting and compelling; Connery’s presence really helped bring the picture to life, and the fine talents of Smith and Garcia also maintained this more spry and involving atmosphere.

Not that they work in a vacuum, of course, as Untouchables marks one of De Palma’s better efforts. I’ve occasionally cracked on De Palma because of his extremely spotty track record; as with John Carpenter, De Palma maintains a positive reputation even though most of his films have been dogs (and flea-bitten ones at that). However, I will give credit where it’s due, and De Palma manages to maintain a good pace throughout Untouchables. He especially excels during some of the action scenes. One of the film’s most famous segments takes place in a train station and involves a pram; it’s a truly memorable and tense piece. Also terrific was the shoot-out on the Canadian border; De Palma took some fairly standard material and made it quite crisp and exciting.

Actually, one of my favorite aspects of Untouchables stemmed from its attitude toward violence. I liked the fact that we found a protagonist in Ness who understood the implications of physical attacks and who tried hard to avoid the use of weapons. Too many movies treat the subject in a cavalier manner, and Untouchables has some of those moments as well. However, it largely uses violence in a powerful manner that made its repercussions more clearly felt; when a main character dies, the impact seemed much stronger than usual.

The Untouchables has its flaws, but as a whole, I found the film to offer a dramatic and compelling experience. Inconsistent director Brian De Palma managed to provide strong guidance on this occasion, and the terrific cast let the movie reach a higher level. For an action/gangster flick, you can’t do too much better than this.

The DVD:

The Untouchables appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture displayed some problems, as a whole I thought it offered a strong viewing experience.

Sharpness appeared crisp and tight throughout most of the film, with virtually no signs of soft or hazy images. A little edge enhancement seemed apparent, however, which resulted in a few examples of jagged edges and some moiré effects cropped up in items like stairs and blinds, but these remained fairly minor. Print flaws presented the DVD’s most significant issues, though even these stayed modest. White speckles appeared most frequently, and I also detected occasional bouts of grain, grit, and a few nicks. For the most part, these stay in the background, but they did prove distracting at times.

Colors looked nicely rich and natural. Untouchables favors a warm and glowing palette, and the DVD reproduced these hues well. I found the tones to appear clear and vibrant throughout the film without signs of bleeding or noise. Black levels were nicely deep and dark, and contrast seemed strong. Black levels were clean and appropriately dense but they lacked any problems related to excessive heaviness or murkiness. Ultimately, I was quite pleased with the image found on this DVD; without the print flaws, the picture would have made it into “A” territory.

The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Untouchables provided a dated but generally solid experience. The soundfield remained largely anchored to the forward channels. Across the front spectrum, I thought the audio appeared somewhat too “speaker specific” for parts of the track. For example, when a card game takes place on the left hand side of the screen, the shuffling of the cards seemed too loud and prominent, and was artificial. However, much of the sound blended together nicely and also panned well. Music offered solid stereo separation. Surround usage appeared fairly minor. I detected some minor ambiance at times, and a few gunfight scenes added useful atmosphere.

Audio quality also seemed erratic but relatively good. Dialogue had the most variation. Most of the speech came across as clear and acceptably natural, but some lines could be flat and dull. For some reason, that tendency was most prevalent during Connery’s scenes. Effects appeared reasonably crisp and realistic, though some distortion could crop up at times; not surprising, gunfights and explosions presented the biggest problems in this domain. Easily the best aspect of the soundtrack stemmed from the reproduction of Ennio Morricone’s excellent score. The music always sounded clean and full, with some nice low end and clear highs. Unfortunately, a little tape hiss also accompanied the score at times, but for the most part, the music seemed wonderfully rich. As a whole, the soundtrack of The Untouchables was something of a mixed bag, but it worked reasonably well for a film of its vintage.

Less satisfying are the DVD’s extras. All we find is the original theatrical trailer for The Untouchables. An audio commentary from De Palma would have been very interesting, but what’re ya gonna do?

Despite the lack of extras, The Untouchables makes for a solid DVD. The movie itself doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but it provides a generally exciting and well-executed affair. The DVD offers solid picture plus erratic but relatively good sound and virtually no supplements. While I’d be able to provide a stronger recommendation had the DVD included substantial bonus materials, the movie is good enough and the presentation strong enough to merit your attention.

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