UNTOUCHABLES, THE - HD DVD review

...a riveting motion picture, enhanced now in the kind of high-definition picture and sound that does it proud.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

You really can't appreciate how beautiful a motion picture this is until you see it in HD. Maybe that sounds ironic, given that "The Untouchables" is a gangster movie rated R for its violence, but I'm serious about its beauty. I was dubious going into the film about whether it would really benefit from the 1080 resolution HD DVD treatment, but two minutes into the show, I could tell how much more vibrant and alive the whole show was in high-definition picture and sound. It's a class act.

"What the hell. You're going to die of something." --Sean Connery, "The Untouchables"

The cast roster for "The Untouchables" lists Kevin Costner as star, with Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery as costars. It should have listed Connery first, because he's the real star of the show, and that's saying a lot given the caliber of talent he's running with. As always, Connery dwarfs his fellow actors, making us forget even De Niro. The other star is director Brian De Palma, who creates as enjoyable a piece of entertainment as anything he's done. "The Untouchables," from 1987, may not have the edge or explosiveness of some of De Palma's other films like "Carrie," "Blow Out," or "Scarface," but it's both smooth and tense; plus, it abounds in the director's typical stylistic touches.

What's more, David Mamet ("The Verdict," "House of Games") wrote the screenplay, Ennio Morricone ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") wrote the Wagnerian-inspired musical score, and no less than Giorgio Armani, one of the world's top fashion designers, provided the wardrobes. Hard to ask for much more than that.

The filmmakers based the story and characters in part on the old "Untouchables" TV show and in part on the purported real-life exploits of Treasury agent Eliot Ness and his campaign to nail mobster Al Capone (as depicted in Ness's autobiography), which is why the film may seem a bit episodic. The time is 1930, and everyone in Chicago is on the take. The mayor, the judges, the juries, the chief of police, and most of the police force are in Capone's pocket. T-man Ness (Costner) arrives on the scene to clean up the place and soon learns that he can't trust anybody. So he recruits a small team of incorruptible agents to help him. Garcia plays a crack young shot, Oscar Stone, just out of the police academy; Smith plays a Treasury Department accountant, Oscar Wallace; and Connery is a seasoned old beat cop, Jimmy Malone, as honest and practical as the day is long. Together, they go after the Big Man, Capone, played by De Niro, and eventually nab him for tax evasion.

Those who remember "The Untouchables" television series will appreciate Kevin Costner's role. He's a straight-arrow goody-two-shoes, to be sure, and that's much the way we probably all remember Robert Stack in the part; although, to be fair, I liked Stack's tougher demeanor. Costner is not only a knight in shining armor, though, he's a vulnerable knight. His low-key, all-too-human portrayal is not the bigger-than-life character many of us remember from TV, but it's probably closer to the real-life Ness, who faded into obscurity after his prominent encounter with Capone. Garcia's performance is more energetic than Costner's, his rookie's attitude at once cocky and unsure. Smith's accountant is the voice of reason. At first, no one pays any attention to him when he tells them he can convict Capone on tax charges. What an absurd notion, to go after a big-time mobster for overdue taxes. But it works. And you haven't seen a genuine superhero until you've seen a kick-ass Charles Martin Smith in action! Never get an accountant mad. Then there's De Niro, existing in a kind of world of his own. Capone and Ness only confront one another, briefly, a couple of times in the film. Mostly, we see De Niro's Capone chomping on a big cigar, talking and acting tough. The film makes no attempt to get behind Capone's words and into his personality. He is merely a cardboard heavy, the antithesis of Ness, and clearly nothing more than a target for the T-man to pick off. It seems a waste of De Niro's talents, but he gives it his best shot, in a manner of speaking.

That leaves Connery. As I said, he towers over the other actors. His Jimmy Malone is reluctant at first to get involved with Ness, because in Chicago in 1930 you didn't trust anyone, not even a crusading government policeman. When Connery is on the screen, he lights it up like few others. He's a throwback to those old-time movie stars like Bogart and Gable who could make an audience forget that anybody else was in a film. When you finish this one, it's Connery you'll remember. And you'll probably remember him in a couple of key scenes, too, like one where he scares a reluctant witness half to death by "killing" a corpse in front of him. I'll leave it to you to figure out if you haven't already seen the film. Connery won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance and well deserved it.

I mentioned that David Mamet wrote the script, and at the time people knew him better known as a playwright than as a film writer or director. We know him today largely for his development of character, but here he does almost nothing with character backgrounds or motivations. Ness, for instance, is simply a man dedicated to his job, his wife, and his young daughter. Malone is an honorable and cagey patrolman, living by himself and walking a beat. About the only thing we learn about why he never got promoted is that he says he is too honest in a corrupt city. As a single fellow, did he ever consider leaving? Capone's splashy appearances in white fedora, cape, and cigar tell us nothing about his personal life, and so on. But, again, when you base a script on a TV series and folklore, one shouldn't expect too much character development to enter the picture. Instead, we get dialogue from Mamet that's terse and to the point, like Malone's line to Ness: "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way." That's this movie's very direct approach, too.

So, the story is largely action based, and it's here that De Palma excels. Granted, some of the goings-on border on the preposterous, like watching the four stalwart heroes--a Treasury agent, two big-city cops, and an accountant--ride horseback into battle with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but De Palma stages most of it, we just go along with it. Besides, De Palma tells us in one of the disc's featurettes that the scene was a tribute to John Ford.

De Palma roots the movie's style in purpose, as he uses things like extended tracking shots, overhead angles, movement from room to room seen from outside a building, and first-person points of view to build suspense and create excitement. Although the film has a few slow moments getting started, we find it otherwise filled with one tense situation after another, culminating in a train station scene that pays homage not only to De Palma's inspiration, Alfred Hitchcock, but to the Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, and his famous "Odessa Steps" sequence from 1925's "Battleship Potemkin." De Palma leaves no doubt whose film this is. Few other directors would have even considered beginning their film by blowing up an innocent child or showing Capone beating a man to death with a baseball bat at a fancy-dress dinner. The combination of De Palma's direction and Connery's acting are enough to sell the movie.

Video:
Paramount's HD DVD transfer is good, the video engineers retaining the movie's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. More important, the picture is clear and for the most part well defined. The slight softness one notices in the standard-definition version is still here, as is a little of the grain I noticed in the SD transfer. The nicest aspect of all, though, is that the colors are natural, especially facial tones. Close-ups are a tad less sharp than medium and long shots, however, perhaps the result of too much filtering.

Audio:
Paramount engineers deliver the sound in English via 5.1 EX Dolby Digital Plus and DTS 6.1. In both cases, the audio produces a decent front-channel stereo spread, with a wide dynamic range and good impact. Deepest bass is slightly weak, though.

The major differences I found in the two audio tracks (clicking away madly from one to the other for the first fifteen minutes of the movie) were that the Dolby Digital Plus track sounded clearer, cleaner, and more transparent, while the DTS track seemed to be warmer and fuller, adding slightly more ambient bloom to the surrounds, especially in musical content. I wound up watching about half the film in DD+ and half in DTS, and I never did make up my mind which one I preferred. I suspect it's a matter of which audio track best compliments your speakers. If your speakers are at all bright or forward, the DTS track may sound best; if your speakers are more neutral, you may prefer the DD+ track. Ultimately, I suspect the DD+ is superior, but I wouldn't bet on it. The two tracks are simply different, and listeners will have to determine for themselves which one they prefer. You can't go wrong either way.

Extras:
Paramount's HD DVD gets its extras from the earlier, standard-definition, Special Collector's Edition. These bonus items are mainly four featurettes made in 2004 and presented in SD. First up is "The Script, The Cast," eighteen minutes; next is "Production Stories," seventeen minutes; then "Reinventing the Genre," fourteen minutes, and "The Classic," five minutes. These featurettes include interviews and commentary by the filmmakers, most prominently De Palma himself. However, I would have preferred a single, one-hour documentary than these shorter, separate featurettes, since much of the material seems redundant and all the clicking around involved is a chore. In addition, there is an original promotional featurette, "The Men," made at the time of the film's creation.

The extras conclude with twenty-four scene selections; a 1.85:1 ratio theatrical trailer in 1080 high definition; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Did everything in "The Untouchables" actually happen the way it's depicted in the movie? No, I don't think so. In reality, Ness probably did very little to combat illicit booze in Chicago or to convict Al Capone. Most of Ness's achievements that we know today derive from Ness's own autobiography in which, frankly, he embroidered the truth. Does it matter? No, I don't think so. The movie stands on its own, and a riveting motion picture it is, enhanced now in the kind of high-definition picture and sound that does it proud.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
6
Film Value
8