Dick Tracy (1990) Retro Review

You will start off being dazzled by Dick Tracy. Its makeup and costumes, its distinct seven-color palette, its odd comic book world, will delight and intrigue. You will then be shocked by the actors you recognize under the prosthetics. Is that Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles? Is that screeching hunchback Al Pacino? James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, and Dick Van Dyke as the slimy D.A.? Madonna circa 1990? Homina homina homina!

And then, sadly, Dick Tracy will wear out its welcome. It’s not weird enough, it’s not cool enough and it’s not edited enough. It is, though a valiant effort and a fascinating experiment, not much more than a Batman knockoff. Warren Beatty, though he directed and starred in the film, spends the majority of it looking very confused. So will you. You may think it’s presumptuous of me to pontificate in the second-person, but of these two franchises, can you remember even one of Mr. Tracy’s rogues gallery? Which hero has enjoyed a gritty reboot? Which one is about to join Zack Snyder’s latest injudicious adaptation?

Sprouting from the same 1930s pulp roots, Batman and Dick Tracy are about the same age. So when Warren Beatty adapted Tracy to film, he had sixty years of media serials to draw from: The original comic strip, cartoon, films, radio plays and television shows. He didn’t disappoint. The film would eventually win the Oscar for Art Direction, as well as Best Makeup and Best Original Song.

The film is incredibly faithful to its source material, from its characters to, most strikingly, its comic verisimilitude. The entire film utilizes only seven colors, each in only one shade. In his four-star review for the film Roger Ebert wrote, “Dick Tracy is a masterpiece of studio artificiality, of matte drawings and miniatures and optical effects.” His praise is entirely directed at the film’s tenacious make-believe. “This is a movie about creatures of the imagination,” he writes, “about people who live in rooms where every table lamp looks like a Table Lamp and every picture on the wall represents only a Picture on the Wall.” Critics who dislike the film, he opines, disregard its comic origins. The few times Beatty tries to inject Tracy with personality are wrong by nature. “[W]e are not talking about real people here, but about archetypes. Tracy should be as square as his jaw.”

As far as the look of the film, Ebert is spot on. It is beautifully two-dimensional.

The basic plot follows Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty), top cop of the City, in his quest to bring down “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) and his gang of organized hoodlums. While trying to juggle a relationship with his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and avoiding calls for a stuffy desk job, he is tempted by Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) and put in the crosshairs of every bad guy in town. Rounding out the cast is Charlie Korsmo as The Kid, a street urchin who eventually comes to idolize Tracy.

Truth time, readers. I wanted to fall in love with this movie again. The first time I saw it was at a drive-in in 1990. I was maybe five, I sat in the front seat with my parents. The only images I retained from that solitary viewing was Flattop shooting letters into a brick wall and Madonna on a thing being all sultry.

Here at the end of 2013 those remain the salient takeaways.

The oddest element of this adaptation is not that its villains (and some of its heroes) are cartoonish looking monsters, nor that Beatty opts to go for a serious tone (in the sense that the gangsters shoot real guns and really kill people). The odd part is that it tries to do both of these things at the same time. If the weirdness of its villains was played up or the violence more cartoonish these elements could be justified. But really, the film never veers from a by-the-numbers crime drama. (It may be a little more melodramatic but I don’t think that’s intentional.) So what you’re left with is a criminal melodrama that happens to have a cast of misshapen but otherwise interchangeable characters. For the first half of the movie it’s an entertainingly bizarre premise but after a while the only bizarre thing is why the movie’s still happening.

The entire cast, including its lead, is wasted in this, except for The Kid, who gets exactly as much screentime as you hope he won’t. There is an entire subplot about how much he likes to eat. Al Pacino, an actor of great passion, is terrible. Madonna is amazing. Both she and Pacino have many, many scenes with Dick Tracy that go nowhere, but at least the lady sparkles. She sings good, too. Pacino enters the movie screaming and leaves it screaming and somewhere in the middle he’s also screaming but it’s easier to just tune him out and accept that he’s the bad guy and move on.

The film overstays its welcome by a good half hour. The final setpiece is incomprehensible and drawn out, Pacino’s endless monologue has no purpose and no humor and the entire sequence of events, from a clumsy shootout in front of a club to an awkward chase over a bridge and a tedious battle inside it, strips the film of any lingering cuteness. Not helping the poor pacing is the scantiness of this city’s population, which, even over its exhausting runtime, seems to consist of three cops, three reporters and some gangsters. Burton’s Batman also suffered from a depopulated Gotham city, but his editor strove to draw our attention away from its artifice (not always succeeding, mind). In Dick Tracy, the inadequacy of the direction leads our eyes all over its barren beauty, and it is found wanting.

Though it wears its love of the original strip on its sleeve, Dick Tracy fails to entertain after its first hour. In the end, a lot of latex was used to cover up what the film really is: A not very interesting gangster movie.

Based on Dick Tracy by Chester Gould

Dick Tracy (1990)
Directed by Warren Beatty
Buena Vista Pictures
105 Minutes

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4 Comments on Dick Tracy (1990) Retro Review

  1. I’m still left wondering if that means it’s just a product of the times it was made. Like it was unheard of back then?

    I realize now that the wealth of movies I’ve seen have made me jaded, not because I’m growing more cynical, but because when I see a trailer, I think, “I’ve seen that story before” and even the memory of it serves as a better preview than what I’m seeing now.

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