Here’s one for the trivia games: What movie did Warren Beatty make after he and Dustin Hoffman stunk up the theaters with “Ishtar,” Elaine May’s contemporized version of the old Crosby-Hope “road” pictures?
Answer: “Dick Tracy,” a screen adaptation of the long-running Chester Gould comic strip that Beatty decided to direct himself.
He produced it, too, and stars as the yellow-coated Tracy, a “dick” (slang for “detective”) who traces criminals and communicates with headquarters through his two-way wrist radio. The comic strip, which debuted in fall 1931 and ran until 1977, followed the exploits of a detective who used forensics as much as he used his gun. That Tootsie Pop exterior was balanced by a soft center, as Tracy was “sweet” on a woman named Tess Trueheart and took in an orphan who said he’d be proud to call himself Dick Tracy, Jr.
But the strip was best known (and loved) for its outrageous Batman-style villains. There was a Nazi spy named Pruneface (so named because he looked like a shriveled-up apple carving), a hit man named Flat Top (yep, with a flat head), and, after Max Allan Collins took over the strip following Gould’s retirement, a gangster known as “Big Boy.” A popular (but critically denigrated) TV series added mobsters like the aptly named Itchy and Mumbles, and all of them collectively make an appearance in this 1990 film bankrolled by Disney to the tune of $100 million. Though it eventually took in a worldwide total of $163 million, studio execs were disappointed, hence, no sequel.
As superhero/comic book adaptations go, “Dick Tracy” falls somewhere in the middle. The plot is the standard Elliot Ness fare, and the characters aren’t developed much, because to do so would be to remove them from the comic-strip realm. But “Dick Tracy” features some fun performances, and the art direction and set design—the visual LOOK of the film—is so rich and distinctive that it’s hard not to become enthralled by it. I found myself captivated by the art design, which relied heavily on primary colors in every frame in order to achieve the wonderfully immersive comic-book visuals. At times I turned to my son and remarked how it looks like a matte background until suddenly you see figures moving around in the depth of field. In every scene, Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson are careful to make sure that at least three objects or elements are some combination of yellow, red, blue, and green. That carefully placed spot color gives “Dick Tracy” an artificial but also surreal and, yes, comic-book look. In my opinion, it also makes the film well worth watching. Sylbert and Simpson won an Oscar for their work, as did make-up artists John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler, with Stephen Sondheim also grabbing a statue for his original song, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man).”
That song is sung by Madonna, who does a superb imitation of a gangster-era moll and speakeasy singer, contributing several other songs that Beatty uses for his montages to advance the plot—like “More,” or “What Can You Lose” (with Mandy Patinkin). Music washes over this production like the blue light that at some point colors Madonna’s hair, and it really adds to the atmosphere. I’ve seen plenty of films that have managed to capture the feel of a comic book, but this one also captures the look. As a result, “Dick Tracy” is a joy to watch in spite of its recognizable tropes.
Like, a homeless kid (Charlie Korsmo) witnesses one mob wiping out another, with Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) taking control of the city’s crime syndicate and elevating their illegal activities to the point where residents live in terror. We’ve seen that before. Same with the crime boss then taking over his former rival’s nightclub. In this case, he also grabs the singer (Madonna) for himself and hires hit men to take out Tracy, who’s hot on his trail. Apart from a side plot showing Tracy acquiring a little family composed of the kid and Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), with an outside threat posed by Madonna’s character, that’s the entire narrative skeleton. But it’s fleshed out considerably by the talents of the actors—including bits by talents like Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, and Dick Van Dyke—who clearly have fun with the script. As bizarre as these characters get, the make-up is also stellar and adds to the enjoyment.
At one point Tracy is framed, which, again, we’ve seen so many times before, but the characters revel in the script’s craziness. And those primary colors in all the right places pull everything together.
“Dick Tracy” is rated PG for grotesque characters, some violence, and alcohol/tobaccco use.
After a pre-title sequence that has more grain than the rest of the film and some noise, “Dick Tracy” hits stride pretty quickly, with an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer showing only a few instances of crush and no excessive DNR. I expected to see some haloing around the predominant reds and yellows, but that was never the case. Edges are clearly delineated, and there’s a nice amount of detail in medium shots and long shots, as well as in the close-ups, where even the make-up jobs on Pruneface and the others really hold up under the HD scrutiny. “Dick Tracy” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a well-rounded English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that will upconvert to 7.1 if you have your system configured that way. Some films with action have wide volume gaps between the dialogue and the effects, but this one narrows that gap while not sacrificing fullness of tone. In fact, during the effects sequences the audio is darn near immersive, though it stops short of that. Sound fills the room, but at times it doesn’t travel, and the rear channels are often relegated for delivering Danny Elfman’s score. Still, when Tracy gets into a fistfight with an opponent and the effects remind you of the old “Batman” TV series with Adam West, the soundtrack delivers every roundhouse with verve. Additional audio options are in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
None. Zero. Nada. But it does come with a Digital Copy.
“Dick Tracy” isn’t in the top tier of comic-book adaptations, but ingenuous art direction and set decoration and some crazy make-up jobs create a film that’s still a delight to watch.