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The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987)

   

    Unquestionably a product of the Regan era, Brian De Palmaís triumphant pop gangster flick The Untouchables contains within its slick crime movie exterior a series of probing questions about reactionary morality. The familiar story of Eliot Nessí (Kevin Costner) band of do-gooder cops and their fights against Al Caponeís (Robert De Niro) prohibition ring contains within it a central paradox that screenwriter David Mamet latches onto. Prohibition wouldnít have risen about if it werenít for a perception that alcohol causes social problems. Capone would never have risen to power if it werenít for the conservatism that ushered in the prohibition era. As a reaction to Capone, the establishment responds with the dispatching of Treasury agent Ness and his squad of toughs. The film follows the moral trajectory of Ness, whose idealistic law-abiding good intentions slowly crumble in the face of reality. Itís easy to see this surprisingly realistic viewpoint as a cynical one, since itís placed into the context of a film that on many levels operates on comic book terms, but I think itís instead a circular one. Itís no mistake that De Palma overloads his compositions with circular imagery, and even when heís not doing that, his camera begins tracking in advance of the action, giving the subconscious effect that the camera knows whatís going to happen in advance, presumably because these events have happened before and will happen again. The circle of events that gives The Untouchables its moral quandary is made viscerally thrilling with this form.

   

    Itís this ever-present morality that justifies the stunningly directed, but vaguely exploitational action set pieces that provide the most conventionally exciting passages in the film. Each one of them is a suspenseful doozy, and they all find De Palma working at the height of his considerable conceptual powers. The most memorable and controversial sequence is easily the climactic shootout in Chicagoís Union Station, partially because it features De Palmaís trademark extended slow-motion in an incredibly complex choreography of gun fighting and nervous tension, but mostly because it has the audacity to evoke Sergei Eisensteinís classic Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. I imagine most bristle at this homage because they feel it fundamentally devalues the originalís serious intent, but with the realization that The Untouchables is a politically charged film itself, and not just a mindless parade of violence, those complaints fade away. The sequence brings with it a distinctly American brand of injustice, perfectly pushing forward the never-ending cycle of violence and response to that violence that the film addresses. Kevin Costnerís fair face masks the filmís disturbing message to such a degree that the end result can easily pass as mindless mainstream entertainment, but make no mistake: The Untouchables is one of De Palmaís most trenchant statements about the state of America.

 

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01-24-03 

Jeremy Heilman