DICK TRACY – (1990)

Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Madonna
Screenplay by: Jim Cash, Jack Epp Jr.

It takes a real badass to wear bright colors in public and get away with it. Steve Harvey can do it. Pimps can do it. But the original ass-kicking, gangsta-punching detective, Dick Tracy, rocked the yellow trenchcoat way before it was (ironically) cool. Chester Gould debuted this comic back in 1931, and it’s still referenced to this day. Dick was a symbol of good in a world of corruption and grotesque criminals whose crimes matched, albeit metaphorically, the deformities of their physical appearance.

Dick Tracy also introduced a high level of violence in his comics, among other unique features, such as actual investigations, forensic discoveries, serious dramatic relationships, and a rich backstory of character developments. Still running till this day in certain newspapers, the franchise reached a pinnacle of sorts with the release of this film during the first wave of comic book movies in the earlier 90s—back when campy was considered the only way to produce them (see Batman, Phantasm, The Shadow, The Rocketeer, etc.)

NOSTALGIC LENS: I’m kinda excited. I’m entering the list of films that I hardly remember, so I’m pretty much watching this for the first time. All I remember is Flattop and Itchy (Itchy was my favorite, although I distinctly remember being disappointed that Itchy hardly scratched himself in the film), bright colors, and a sweet shootout in the end, where everyone is killed. Oh, yeah, this movie was pretty hardcore back then.

DOES IT HOLD UP: Somewhere in this movie is a good movie. It wants to be good. It needs to be good. I liked a lot of it truth be told. But there are some parts that are just god-awful and flat-out stupid. Imagine hanging out with some friends, and you’re having a great time, laughing and socializing, and one of them says the most fucked-up thing you’ll ever hear. Everyone stops laughing and the mood is completely killed. But at least you can start up the awesome again.

You can tell the kind of movie this will be in the first ten minutes (apologies to the horrid French over-dubbing—it’s the only version I could find):

After a vicious massacre by Flattop and Itchy, the mood is killed by a bizarre moment when Dick is called into the scene from an opera, glances at the damage, then returns to the opera. What!? And the line readings during Tess (Dick’s girlfriend) and Dick’s walk down the street are ridiculously campy. I mean, the movie is campy overall, but that scene is just way in outer space (which is ironic, since Dick Tracy did have an outer space story arc in the comics.)

Luckily (or strangely), things start to calm down as the movie progresses, and becomes at the very least a normal-campfest. Dick is caught between catching the bad guy (a hilarious Big Boy played by Al Pacino) at all costs, staying within the confines of the law, and his dual attraction between Tess and Breathless (and taking care of The Kid, AKA, Dick Tracy Jr.). The movie is much easier to swallow at this point, but there are still a lot of missteps.

I blame Beatty, clearly an inferior director trying to tackle something so monumental. He’s inconsistent in stylistic choices, and isn’t particularly keen on fixing the mistakes in the screenplay. He lets everything just play out whether it makes sense or not. The back-and-forth edits between Breathless’s singing and Dick’s action scenes aren’t good at all, although the montages with Breathless’s songs overdubbed are much better (the songs themselves are also very good, so that helps). Sound cues are just terribly done, as if they screwed up during shooting, and had to be dubbed in later by an incompetent sound studio (why is Dick and Tess so distinctly heard when the camera is 500 feet away from them? How much does it cost for an echo effect?)

The worse scene for me had to be when Dick saves someone from “the bath” (being covered in cement within a box.) He opens the box to save him. Cut to the bad guys coming after them. Cut back to Tracy—who for some reason put himself in the box. Tracy is now covered in cement and his gun doesn’t work! Well, fuck, you should have thought about that before you jumped to the wet cement. A creepy character called No-Face saves him, though.

So, the movie fails there, but succeeds in others. Big Boy tries to choreograph a Breathless dance number, which is hysterical, since he only slaps her, bumbles around and just gets in the way. Dick and The Kid have some rather poignant scenes together, and after that street scene, Dick and Tess have their moments too. The criminals are sufficiently monstrous, with Flattop stealing the show just by being a sadistic murderer.

Heck, when the plot gets going, it gets going pretty well, with a delightful number of setups and double-crosses, bribes and backstabbing, and even a sweet ass, well-done fame job of Tracy. But for all those great moments, as mentioned, some stuff just makes you cringe. I rolled my eyes pretty hard when Big Boy’s bugged room is exposed by—get this—a spilled cup of coffee. There’s also an odd scene where Dick has to climb down from a building, even though it’s rather unclear how the hell he got up there in the first place. And I don’t even want to discuss the inanity of the see-saw scene.

Hey. Hey. Hey, hey, hey. You know who was surprisingly good though? Madonna. I knooooooooooow. Actually, sarcasm aside, Madonna kind of showed a bit of decent acting chops in this film and A League of Their Own, and here, she’s the only one (aside from the other side characters) to understand the right tone of campiness needed, especially to play a femme fatale such as herself. Warren Beatty, on the other hand, never seems to quite get a grip on Dick. When he’s not just kicking ass and taking names, Dick kind of flounders, stutters around Tess, and pointlessly stares at pictures of cars and No-Face sketches. Although, to be fair, I think it’s mainly done to reflect how terrible Tracy is at desk jobs. I just didn’t think he’d be THAT terrible.

But he kicks crazy ass in the climax:

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler.

IN A NUTSHELL: This movie is a roller coaster of awesome and fail, a back and forth inconsistent film filled with as many great moments as there are terrible ones. I didn’t like this more, nor did I hate it… I just strung along for the ride. Please, if there is any Dick Tracy fans out there, drop some knowledge on me and the rest of the comment board.

July 27th: FernGully: The Last Rainforest
August 3rd: An American Tail


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  1. #1 by The Blank on March 2, 2010 - 4:01 am

    Nice entry! I was thirteen when Dick Tracy came out, & became quite obsessed with it for reasons that are mysterious to me. I still have a nostalgic fondness for it, & smile when it is mentioned.

    I agree with many points you made above, in particular the inconsistencies in tone you described. The color saturation & makeup effects were first-rate though, & I think the overall quality of the production is high.

    I have to disagree with you concerning Madonna, though, as I hold her acting to be the worst in the film. The songs, as you said, were quite good, though (I have Sooner or Later running in my head as I type this), & Madonna’s look & voice worked well.

    i”m not sure what knowledge I can impart, other than this: If you find yourself playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, this is a fantastic cast to be familiar with — *everyone* is in here.

  2. #2 by kjohnson1585 on March 2, 2010 - 10:16 am

    The Blank,

    I think that’s a big part of Dick Tracy’s appeal: the film’s aesthetic is rather amazing, even in mid-90s standards. It’s definitely great to watch at a younger age, where its easier to ignore the awkward plotting.

    Hahaha, in a way, I think that’s why I did like Madonna. It’s bad, but for something like Dick Tracy, bad worked in her favor. Her lack of skills somehow makes her stand out more than Warren Beatty’s serious-but-not-that-serious approach.

  3. #3 by Anonymous on June 27, 2011 - 7:45 pm

    Not French, for sure, probably Russian

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