Monkey Movie Review – Dick Tracy (1990)

With a free preview of HBO and Cinemax in place, I stumbled across this movie one night, which I had never seen.  I had heard of it when it was released, back in the hey day of Madonna, but never actually went to see it.  I knew it wasn’t heralded as much of a movie; there was no sequel.

Let’s start with the cast: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Mandy Patinkin, Paul Sorvina, James Caan, Catherine O’hara, to name the most notable.  Oh my goodness!  Certainly there was no lack of talent.  And songs by Steven Sondeim and music direction by Danny Elfman! Wowsers!

As popular as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was, one would have thought that a very popular comic strip character such as Dick Tracy would garner a lot of positive buzz.

(Note that there’s a lot of backstory to this movie, and interesting details regarding Beatty’s effort to get this movie made, and to acquire the rights in order to make a sequel – if interested, read up on this movie on Wiki)

Apparently, twenty years later, there’s still some chance of a sequel.  But given the age of Beatty at the time (52), he’s sure not to be cast as the lead. Madonna was already dating Beatty prior to this movie being made, so that explains why she has a large role despite not being much of an actress.

Now to the movie – as mentioned, Warren Beatty is the lead character (Dick Tracy).  There’s a whole plot around Big Boy Caprice trying to take over the crime syndicate despite the efforts of Dick Tracy to stop him.  Caprice kills off a bunch of people, turns the table on Tracy, but in the end, as expected, Tracy is triumphant. There’s a rather predictable twist ending.  Pretty classic plot.  You could describe a number of the recent super hero movies using a simple plot description as that.  So let’s compare this to say, Spiderman (the first one).  Why was Toby Maguire so much more compelling, and why was that movie so much more successful?

It boils down the the script (as you might expect).  For Dick Tracy, it has no heart.  It’s cold.  Tracy is cold. Tess Trueheart is not particularly appealing.  She’s not attractive and is generally unhappy throughout the movie with Tracy putting his detective job ahead of her.  So it’s hard to really empathize with her.  Then there’s Madonna, who plays Breathless Mahoney.  Madonna is a lot of things, but she is not able to pull of “sexy”.  She can dress sexily, and speak in a (breathless) sexy way – but she comes off as flat and forced.  She throws herself at Tracy and he’s not interested, much.

Spiderman, on the other hand, took a lot of time explaining the origin of the character, what compelled him to take on crime fighting, his relationship with his aunt and uncle, etc.  It made the character human, with a human family and emotions, despite outrageous villains.  It gave us a basis for empathy.  Dick Tracy does not.  Even the radio-telephone gadget doesn’t hold up well (it looks like it’s cardboard or something?)

The movie makes no attempt to provide any history of the character.  There appears to be a sense that you know the details behind Tracy’s life and personality.  In reality, though I used to skim Dick Tracy in the comics when I was a kid, I didn’t know much about the character.   So the movie starts, he does his thing, and you learn that Tess wants him to be dedicated to her, and well, that’s pretty much it.  

There are good things about the movie.  First, it has a large number of superbly beautiful matte paintings.  This movie was made on the cusp of digital taking over.  The scenes of the city from a distance are gorgeous.  The docks, the downtown – very beautifully done.  The colors are bright and distinctive.  The decision was made to only use the colors that are used in the Sunday comics (primary colors: red, green, blue, yellow).   Whole sets are painted or accented this way; all the vehicles are one of these primary colors.  At the same time, all the vehicles, costumes, sets are vintage late 1930’s and 1940’s.  Really interesting to see.

The best character turns out to be The Kid, played by Charles Korsmo.  He’s funny and quick – and acts like a kid.  He’s believable and even his expressions when not contributing dialogue are perfect.  I enjoyed pretty much every scene he was in – and he brought scenes with Dick Tracy back to something that was watchable and enjoyable.  But unfortunately, he’s a small part of the movie.

Al Pacino and the other notable actors really give it a go.  Pacino gets into his character and seems to improv a lot of dialogue here and there.

And the prosthetics are remarkable.  Flathead, Pickle Puss – all of the makeup work is superb.

The bottom line is that this movie was made with a lot of care at a fairly large cost.  But they forgot that without a decent script, a movie will fail.  And while this movie does not fail, the script does.  I would watch it only for some of the remarkable work that was done to bring this movie to the screen.

Out of five bananas, Monkey gives this 1.5 bananas.  Only watch it if it’s already on and you don’t have much else to do.



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