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PopGap #34: Dick Tracy (1990)

PopGap #34: Dick Tracy (1990)

Directed by Warren Beatty
Written by dorrk
27 November 2017

The enemy of my enemy is my enemy.

Two of the movie trends that dominated the start of the 1990s were mob dramas and comic book adaptations. The huge success of Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 turned comic books into potential blockbuster fuel, and three gangster dramas earned best picture nominations between 1990 and 1991 (The Godfather Part III, GOODFELLAS, BUGSY), surrounded by a glut of quirky indie takes on the subject (MILLER'S CROSSING, KING OF NEW YORK) in addition to more crassly commercial knockoffs (MOBSTERS). Warren Beatty merged those two movements by dusting off serialized 1930s supercop Dick Tracy for a restored clash with his grotesque mobster nemeses, and surprised everyone by finding something fun and even elegant in that outdated and simplistic pile of mothballs.

As mercurial detective Tracy, Beatty gets caught in the middle of a gang war led by Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), who demands that the other crooks join him or end up scattered in pieces all over the sidewalk. For some reason, charmless singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) seems to be involved at all times, causing friction between Tracy and his long-suffering girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). Along the way, Tracy sort of adopts a hungry street urchin (Charlie Korsmo), bringing his resistance to domesticity into stark relief.

The plot is beside the point in Dick Tracy, which seems to have been 80% inspired by its potential for colorful production design evoking the art style of the original comics, and 20% by the weird and neat makeup required to make all of the villains look like mutants from the outskirts of Tromaville. However, if those were the only successes of Dick Tracy, it might still have been a chore to sit through once the wow-factor wears off, and Pacino deserves huge credit for his energetic tour-de-force performance that picks up the entire movie and throws it forward any time it seems to be treading water. Pacino is so exciting as the lead villain, that Beatty nearly disappears with his diametrically understated approach. For a while, it seems like the major problem with Dick Tracy might be the low-key performance of the title character, as he is outshone in nearly every scene, particularly by Headly and Korsmo, who do their contagious best to make Tracy seem interesting and sympathetic. By the end, it's remarkable how much Beatty's Tracy has seemed to grow in appeal, despite doing very little beyond holding a steady course and letting the bigger canvas of his own movie settle around him.

With a fun nod to gangster movie fans, Beatty fills Dick Tracy with cameos from the previous 35 years of organized crime movies, including fellow cast members from his 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE Michael J. Pollard and Estelle Parsons; Pacino's GODFATHER co-star James Caan; ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA's William Forsythe; and Paul Sorvino, from the same year's critical success Goodfellas. Dustin Hoffman, who appears in a minor role, would headline his own mob drama BILLY BATHGATE the next year, as would Beatty with Bugsy. Stephen Sondheim provides lively and compelling songs, performed ably enough by Madonna, whose singing far outshines her dreadful acting — but even the biggest pop star in the world, at the time, can't hold a candle to the great Mandy Patinkin, as 88 Keys, who effortlessly croons one of Sondheim's best songs as Madonna struggles to keep up.

DICK TRACY was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Ryan Hope. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #659 / 3019 (78%), where it's his 23rd favorite Movie Based-on-Comics out of 165 on his Flickchart. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1448 (64%), making it #38 on my chart of 102 Movies Based-on-Comics.

PopGap #34: Dick Tracy (1990)

Trailer for Dick Tracy (1990)