Dick Tracy arrives from another era in comic-book filmmaking, when Hollywood viewed it all with a lot more skepticism than it does now. Marvel efforts were nowhere to be seen and DC rested everything on its two big pillars (Batman and Superman) to carry their cinematic fortunes. So when Tim Burton’s Batman took the world by storm, studios turned to alternative comic book characters to make their mark. We saw The Shadow, The Mask, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and similar efforts rather than more traditional costumed heroes who dominate movie screens today. Dick Tracy, a pet project for director-star Warren Beatty, boasted a huge budget and treated its subject with more respect than most of its fellows. That may explain why it holds up so well in retrospect. Hit the jump for my full review.
Beatty’s secret weapon was treating his universe straight as an arrow and letting the audience fill in the absurdity. Dick Tracy inhabits a nameless metropolis full of sinister gangsters who wear their souls on their faces. The names describe the sum of the personality: Prune Face, Flattop, 88 Keys, Lips Manlis. The heroic cops arrayed against them are no less one-note… and here if nowhere else, “one note” doesn’t constitute a criticism. Beatty understands how to have fun with the notion, allowing us to share in the Boys’ Own fun without turning it into a too-hip joke.
The cast shares his enthusiasm, particularly Al Pacino who, as Dick Tracy’s criminal nemesis Big Boy, performs the single greatest act of self-parody known to man. He rages, he foams, he utters spontaneous odes to his own criminal genius: depantsing Pacino’s Tony Montana persona even while lionizing its power. In response, Beatty dials his own performance way back, maintaining Tracy’s passion for justice but otherwise exuding calm authority at all times.
Their battle for the city becomes a bit of a shaggy dog, with a meandering screenplay that pulls in dozens of supporting characters. Not the least of whom is showgirl Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), with plans of her own that involve wooing Dick away from his steady gal Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley). Beatty and Madonna shared a torrid off-screen fling during the shoot, and their chemistry helps propel the plot past its occasional slow patches. Stephen Sondheim’s dynamic songs keep things lively as well, with a little help from The Material Girl who knocks them out of the park. (Sondheim scored a well-deserved Oscar for the centerpiece “Sooner or Later.”)
That’s even more important considering the gorgeous production design and costumes… which could, for all their brilliance, swallow lesser stars whole. Beatty takes Burton’s “living comic book” ethos to its logical extreme: the same seven colors cover everything from the cars to the buildings to Tracy’s bright yellow trenchcoat. It’s a joy to watch, especially in our post-Nolan era of gritty realism, but without such larger-than-life figures (both onscreen and off) at the heart of it, it might rapidly suck the heart out of the story.
Luckily, Beatty knows exactly what he’s doing, and finds the proper balance between spectacle and character. Even the wandering script feels true to the comic roots, tricked out over multiple Sunday newspapers and offering convenient start-up points to get the johnny-come-latelies up to speed. More importantly, it’s one of a kind. Though definitely influenced by Burton’s Batman (the Danny Elfman soundtrack feels a tad familiar), it found its own means of telling this story. Though it did reasonably well at the box office, its large budget scared subsequent efforts, who went the cheaper route with their own four-color heroes.
Dick Tracy thus benefits from the A-list backing of more recent productions as well as the outlandish world design of immediate post-Burton-dom. Unlike many of its contemporaries, it hasn’t aged a day. The humor and action still hold true, and the retro-forties design grants it a timelessness that every comic book movie should aspire to. Above all, it reminds us that comic books are supposed to be fun, both for kids and for grown-ups who want to remember what being a kid was like. I love Christopher Nolan’s visions as much as anyone, but his darkness needs a little light to even things out. Dick Tracy shines as brightly and bubbly as anyone could ask for.
Unfortunately, you won’t be getting anything but the film if you buy the Blu-ray. The transfer is beautiful and all those brilliant sets look better than ever. But special features? There’s none to be had, not even a trailer or collection of commercials. Just the now-standard digital copy on a separate disc. Considering the film’s interesting production history and Beatty’s obvious affection for the material, that constitutes a huge let-down.