"Dick Tracy" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
When Warren Beatty made "Dick Tracy" (1990) it was a perfect movie for someone like me. One reason was because I was the right age. In 1990 I was seven years old and the movie was marketed towards children. But, it was also a perfect movie for a kid like me because I grew up with my grandparents and would listen to "The Lone Ranger" radio program. I watched movie serials like "The Green Hornet" (1940) and "The Shadow" (1940). I even knew who Dick Tracy was. I never read the comic strip created by Chester Gould in 1931 because I never liked comics or comic books, but, I did see the early Dick Tracy movies; "Dick Tracy vs. Cueball" (1946) and "Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome" (1947) Boris Karloff was in that one.
"Dick Tracy" was released at a time when a lot of comic books and cartoons were being brought to the big screen (sound familiar?). A year earlier Tim Burton directed "Batman" (1989) with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. It was one of the most anticipated movies released that year. At the time it was felt the movie took a more serious tone. It was dark and was even considered not for kids. Also released in 1989 was "Ghostbusters 2" the sequel to "Ghostbusters" (1984). The first movie was an original concept by Dan Aykroyd, after the release of that movie a Saturday morning cartoon was created which meant a sequel would have to be made. In 1990 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was also released. It was based on a comic book later turned into another Saturday morning cartoon.
Where "Batman" was thought to be too dark and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" too comical, "Dick Tracy" walks that fine line and finds the perfect balance of making sure the movie has a comic look to it with amazing art direction, costume design, breathless cinematography, a color cast of characters, most with exaggerated facial features and cartoon violence it also respects its material, Beatty, as the movie's director, takes all of this serious and tries to give the plot some weight. There is great visual artistry to "Dick Tracy" and that is what separates it from other comic book movies, especially the ones made today. Today's comic book movies are dark, brooding and violent. They take the joy, bright, fun nature of the comics away. "Dick Tracy" wants to retain what makes comics special to a child but also try to make it about people faced with mature problems. For my money, few, if any, comic book movies have come close to this.
"Dick Tracy" was Warren Beatty's third movie as a director coming behind "Heaven Can Wait" (1978) and "Reds" (1981). It may not have seemed like something Beatty would be interested in making. But after you see it, who else could have played this part and who else could have directed it and give the movie this look? Maybe Steven Spielberg, who was considered for a time to direct it, but who else could have acted the role?
"Dick Tracy" also has one of the greatest acting ensembles ever put together; Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, Dick Van Dyke, Henry Silva, Charles Durning, Seymour Cassel, James Caan and for pure eye candy we get Madonna doing her best Marilyn Monroe impression. How many other movies have been able to put together a cast like this? All that is missing is Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson.
Like Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies Beatty makes "Dick Tracy" a contemporary man. He is weak, flawed and vulnerable. In this movie he is torn between his duty to fight crime and his desire to lead a normal life with the woman he loves, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). In fact much of the movie deals with Tracy torn between two women; the innocent Tess and the more sexy Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). Tess is the one you take home to meet your mother and Breathless is the one you want to keep as your own secret. Which one will Tracy chose? This premise takes up as much screen time as Tracy fighting the city's leading gangster, Big Boy (Al Pacino).
The movie is divided in two. One half is a homage to the great gangster films of the 1930s starring James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and part romance. It is also a homage to the Dick Tracy comic strip of course. It has its own gangster story as two crime bosses, Lips Malis (Paul Sorvino) and Big Boy compete over territory. Dick Tracy sees this as his best opportunity to capture Big Boy, especially when Lips goes missing.
Lips was an owner of a nightclub where Breathless sang now Big Boy is running the club. Tracy feels Breathless knows where Lips is and if he can get her to testify against Big Boy he will finally be able to take him down. But Breathless won't do it. Her feelings for Tracy get in the way. She is attracted to him and wants a commitment from him. Tracy loves Tess though and doesn't want to hurt her, even though she is getting tired of waiting around for Tracy to ask her to marry him.
In order the humanize the Tracy character more a character called "The Kid" (Charlie Korsmo) is brought in. All we see Tracy do is fight crime and entertain the idea of cheating on Tess. Having Tracy interact with The Kid shows Tracy in a father figure role, which makes him more appealing to audiences.
But the most special thing about "Dick Tracy" is the world it creates. The movie went to great lengths creating this world. Based on the Chicago landscape Warren Beatty's team developed new buildings, a new skyline, we see classic cars drive by. It almost, kind of, sort of resembles our world but lacks the vivid colors. The movie goes out of its way trying to have a cartoon look. Often the background looks animated.
And then you have the makeup used for the villains. Some of the more memorable characters include Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman) whose face is twisted and mumbles when he talks. There is Flattop (William Forsythe), "Itchy" (Ed O' Ross) and Influence (Henry Silva). Some of these people are barely recognizable.
The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three; best art direction, best makeup and best song, "Sooner or Later" written by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote all the original songs.
"Dick Tracy" is a visual fest, a splendid blend of a live cartoon but takes its story serious. There is much to enjoy from the acting, the makeup, the cinematography and the costumes. "Dick Tracy" creates a new world of us to marvel at.