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The Untouchables (1987)

Film review: The Untouchables (1987), directed by Brian De Palma

tl;dr: Well-dressed but historically inaccurate. Rant ahoy!

It’s 1930 and notorious gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) is the unofficial mayor of Chicago. The powers that be want him taken down. Cue Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), who is put in charge of a team to make that happen.

Ness is a seemingly mild-mannered family man. His wife (Patricia Clarkson) is expecting another baby and leaves him cute notes with his packed lunch, and he’s strict about wanting the police under his command to not drink booze, because it’s illegal. (It wasn’t actually illegal to drink, but okay.)

His team ends up consisting of veteran cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), rookie cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and the bookish Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). They raid places. Wallace keeps talking about Capone’s lack of income tax payments, which isn’t something the righteous Ness wants to hear, because surely they should be able to put Capone away for something a bit more befitting the crimes he’s committed?

Cue a lot of brooding, xenophobic slurs, shootings, angry outbursts and fights. But they’re all wearing clothes by Giorgio Armani and the music’s by Ennio Morricone, so that’s cool? I mean, since Boardwalk Empire I really dig a guy in a fedora. Except perhaps for Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), that’s one scary-ass looking dude right there, and unfortunately it seems he gets typecast for it.

But the main thing about this film is that it annoyed me. That was my first impression of this film, which I had heard good things about … and then I watched it. I’ve been reading and watching a lot about Al Capone recently and even a fairly rudimentary understanding of his organisation and of him as a person, and the people around him, makes me annoyed with this film. It’s not historically accurate in so many ways that it makes me itch, and I’m not even an expert on the matter.

And don’t get me started on the train station shoot-out and that bloody pram! Okay, no, let’s. Ness is standing around for minutes watching a mother struggle with a pram, a suitcase and a toddler. Instead of going “if I help her, it might take 30 seconds and then she’ll be out of the way so I can focus on looking for the dude I’m looking for while also making sure a civilian is safe”. Instead he finally, begrudgingly, helps her at the very last minute, when of course the dude he’s looking for shows up, and everyone gets caught in a shoot-out, because of course that would happen, and it’s just … fuck these guys, ya know?

Nitti took over the Outfit after Al Capone’s incarceration, and he didn’t die falling off a building – he killed himself in the 1940s. And what was about the whole “you dare say that in front of my son?” thing about? Sonny would not have been at the Lexington – nor was there a kid in that shot? He was 12 in 1930, and deliberately kept out of his father’s business. I mean there are so many other things that are wrong about this film that I digress.

If you like gangster films, I guess it does the trick, sort of? I may have been watching things from the other side’s perspective a little too much, because I found it hard to find a reason to root for the good guys here, which may be part of the problem I have with the film.

Being gunned down by a Tommy gun and still being able to crawl through the entirety of a very long apartment? Um, what? Did it only hit non-vital organs or something?

De Niro’s good, though, within the constraints of the film.

But no, I did not particularly enjoy The Untouchables, and the first time I watched it I think I put on an episode of Boardwalk Empire afterwards out of spite, because those writers did do their historical research.

Hrm. Did I mention how much this film annoyed me?

2.5 out of 5 ledgers – I’m docking half a point for the complete omission of Ralph Capone, who ought to have been in it.

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel, when there's not a plague on. Might get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted along the way.

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