What went wrong: “Dick Tracy”

March 14, 2013


In the summer of 1990, movie execs (particularly those at Disney) were convinced that the upcoming Dick Tracy was going to be that summer’s Batman. It, too, was based upon a long-running comic character. It was written by Top Gun scribes Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. It starred and was directed by Warren Beatty. It featured Madonna, fer chrissakes! What, possibly, could go wrong? Okay, did you read any of the stuff I just wrote? Yeah? Then you know what could wrong. I mean, that calculation only works if you live in Bizarro World and sit around shaking your square head, saying, “Me no understand. Me am think Dick Tracy am movie good.” Yeah, but when you throw 110% of the movie’s budget at advertising, well, hell, you can convince people of anything.

Alas, Dick Tracy did not set the world aflame the way Batman did a year earlier. Mainly because, as mentioned, Batman already did that, and any movie was going to be hard-pressed to look like anything but an imitator. And at times Dick Tracy seems to try really hard to be as derivative as possible (having Danny Elfman score the movie doesn’t help matters much, neither does the fact that Batman and Dick Tracy both spring from a similar era of comics with a similar look). But those moments aside, Dick Tracy really does create a universe and visual style all its own. Give Beatty this much, he created an interesting-looking film, using only a handful of primary colors to evoke the Sunday comics and often transposing immediate foreground shots with clear background shots to mimic Chester Gould’s illustration style.

The movie needed more of this.

The movie needed more of this.

Unfortunately, Beatty also made a few other decisions that effectively scuttle the film. It doesn’t go full Bismarck, but the good ingredients never alchemize the way they should. Let’s have a look shall we:

* The Story: At its core, Dick Tracy is a simple story about a square-jawed cop (Beatty) fighting mob kingpin Big Boy Caprice and his army of henchmen in a Depression-era city that looks a lot like Chicago. The movie, then, proceeds to make this story almost as complex as The Godfather Part Three. Along with Big Boy’s fairly byzantine plans to take over the city, Epps and Cash (who, along with Top Gun penned those seminal screenwriting works Anaconda and Anaconda 2: Blood Orchid) throw in a corrupt DA, Tracy’s love-life with girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly, who’s so good she may have been transported straight from a ‘40s noir film), a tiring subplot with a young orphan, The Kid, who becomes a surrogate son to Tracy and Tess, a mysterious blank-faced assassin with a convoluted scheme, Tracy’s temptation at the hands of a torchy singer (Madonna—more on her later, since she merits her own bullet-point), and, oh, I dunno maybe midichlorians, too. Remember, this film is geared toward kids of an age where Roadrunner cartoons are about as morally nebulous as they get.

* The Rogues Gallery: Okay, I know Chester Gould’s shtick was to create a gallery of grotesque villainsFlattop, who has a head like an aircraft carrier; The Brow, with about a half-dozen forehead creases; Littleface (they weren’t all winners…spots was just weird). It works great for kids, and is clever shorthand to keep characters distinct. However, when you slather on the prosthetic to bring those characters to life onscreen, they end up looking like the mutants from Total Recall (the good one). Not only do you rob the actors of their instrument, but the audience spends the duration of the film wondering why Dick Tracy isn’t off looking for the radiation leak that’s afflicting the city.

The scariest one is bottom middle...

The scariest one is bottom middle…

* Beatty’ Gravy Train: Everyone who ever bought Beatty a drink at Spago is in this movie. Unfortunately, mostly they’re buried under latex, so…

* Songs: And one of those people was Stephen Sondheim, who penned several songs for the movie, which Beatty dutifully included in their entirety, because…hey, you have an award-winning Broadway composer’s work! And what a great favor to call in, right? Kids love themselves some Sondheim. West Side Story? Gypsy? Into the Woods? Five to 13 year-olds love that shits, yo. And, you know, the best way to keep your convoluted plot humming along is to stop it dead for a lovelorn duet between Mandy Patinkin and Madonna, which doesn’t advance the plot in any way! Likewise, the best music to play over a montage of Tracy’s ongoing war on the mob is a slow torch song. Yep, when you think of a movie about cops and crooks and molls and Tommy-guns, you gotta have the Sondheim.

It doesn't help matters any that Madonna is dressed like this.

It doesn’t help matters any that Madonna is dressed like this.

* Al Pacino: I’m pretty sure with this film we’ve pinpointed the moment when Al Pacino went insane. As the hunchbacked Big Boy he rants and raves, hams, choreographs the showgirls, and generally just barks in stream of consciousness. By the end of the film, it’s pretty clear he’d left the script behind—hell he probably folded it into an Admiral’s hat and a loincloth and ran around the set wearing that combo until he fainted. And Beatty just lets him go with it. Yes, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that was when the light bulb went on above Pacino’s head and he thought, “Well, shit, this is a lot more fun than, actual acting. I’m just doing this from now on.”

* The Kid:  Okay, this is a mistake many a better moviemaker than Beatty (*coughGeorgeLucasandStevenSpielbergcough*) has made. Okay, just because a movie wants to court kids as an audience doesn’t mean they need kids in the movie. But just as Phantom Menace and Temple of Doom, Dick Tracy throws in a kid as a sidekick whose job it is to look adorable and throw out wisecracks, and even follow Dick Tracy around on his cases. Because, you know, when you’re trading Tommy-gun fire with mutated psychopaths the best partner to have is a nine year-old.

* Madonna: Yeah, it’s weird to think that there was a time before Hollywood knew that Madonna had roughly the same effect on box-office receipts that locusts have on a tobacco crop, but here’s the proof. She was Beatty’s main squeeze at the time, which, you know, answers question #1. Still, you’d think someone at Disney would think, “You know, maybe handing a major role in a family film to the world’s foremost sexual provocateur is an idea we should just walk back a little bit…” She’s horrible in the film, animated only when she’s making truly gross double-entendres at Tracy. I don’t envy those parents who had to explain her “eat the ice cream fast…it’s getting runny” to their kids. Or, hell, had to sit through the scene in which she crawls atop his desk, while he’s sitting at it, and presents like a baboon in heat.

There is nothing right with this picture.

There is nothing right with this picture.

* Director Beatty: Warren Beatty won a lifetime of critical goodwill for making Reds, a movie every movie critic loves, and no one else has actually seen. Because, really, who wants to watch a three-hour movie about the dude who started the American Communist Party unless he’s fighting Rambo? Now, give Beatty credit, he didn’t do a bad job with this movie, and had a lot of good ideas, but it’s pretty clear that this project got away from him.

So, there’s Dick Tracy. Too bad. It could have been a lot more fun. Sam Raimi would have made a great Dick Tracy film. Hell, Walter Hill was attached to project at one point…(sigh) weep for what might have been.

One comment

  1. Best movie ever made hands down..

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