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Dick Tracy (1990)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

Reworking the comic strip, but sticking with its spirit, Dick Tracy showcases some astounding make-up and set design as the fight against crime continues. Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty), a ram-rod straight detective and symbol of hope for the city, is always on call through his watch-radio. His long suffering girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) understands this, even if she doesn't like it, and is resigned to being stood-up at a moment's notice. One of the thorns in Tracy's side is gang boss Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino), owner of an illegal gambling den and associated businesses. However, Lips is replaced by Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) after a cement-related take-over bid succeeds. Thus a new era of law breaking begins.

One of the semi-innocent bystanders who gets caught up in this time of flux is the Kid (Charlie Korsmo), a juvenile petty-thief. He springs to the attention of Tracy after stealing a watch, unwittingly leading the persistent lawman back to his Fagin-like boss. All to soon Tracy finds himself lumbered with the Kid, unwilling to turn him over to the orphanage yet remarkably unprepared for the energy and voracious appetite of his charge. Of course, eventually, it's Tess who winds up looking after the Kid while Tracy dashes off to investigate the disappearance of Lips. Unorthodox interrogation methods allow Tracy to sweat a lead out of Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), pointing directly towards Big Boy. Cunning work means a quick arrest, except that now Tracy has to provide some hard evidence.

Inevitably, Tracy is unable to convince his superiors (particularly DA Fletcher (Dick Van Dyke)) and Big Boy walks free, bemoaning his false imprisonment. Tracy is carpeted for his failure whilst Big Boy sets into motion his grand scheme, uniting the many suspicious gang bosses to form an impervious felonious organisation. An onslaught of racketeering, violence and betting engulfs the city as Tracy searches for a way to get his man (all the while looking after the Kid). A critical factor in his tactics involves night-club singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), who's Big Boy's hired beauty. She has the ability to provide crucial evidence against her keeper, at some personal risk, yet refuses on the pretext of some hidden, personal agenda. Flirting with Tracy she seems to want his total devotion even when it's clear that Tracy's married to his job (with Tess coming just after).

Visually magnificent, the cartoon world of Dick Tracy is recreated in staggering detail. The integration of live-action and plainly artificial backdrops (which straddle the border of graphic-novel and reality) is perfect. Enhancing this cityscape is the decision to utilise only a limited range of primary colours (those in the original strip), which produces some utterly entrancing shots of night-time streets. The second superb design element covers the bad-guys make-up - just take a few names, such as Flattop and Pruneface, then let your imagination run wild (conversely, the good-guys have no external distortions).

However, the plot behind these images is unusually lightweight and fragmented. Beyond the basic idea of good and evil sparring for control there is precious little structure, just filler. If the characters were charismatic and easy to empathise with then this emptiness wouldn't be a drawback, but they aren't. Almost every role appears two-dimensional and simplistic, which may have been Beatty's objective but doesn't lead to scenes that express much emotion. The result is that when the grand finale arrives it feels curiously flat and undramatic. One the other hand, if you want the movie to be a direct translation of the strip then Dick Tracy may be just what you're looking for. Personally I found a lot to gaze at in Dick Tracy, all wrapped around a high-calorie, low-fibre heart.


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