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Non-Review Review: Dick Tracy

There’s a good movie somewhere inside Dick Tracy. It’s hidden pretty deep inside, but I’m sure it must be there somewhere. All the trappings – costume design, set design, make-up and even some of the direction – run the gamut from good to great, but the movie is hampered by terrible performances and a really awful script. Seriously, it seems like the move was written on crayon in bright colours, which might fit well with the aesthetic that Beatty was going for – but does not a good film make.

Quit Dickin' around...

And when I say the writing is bad – it’s bad. The most unintentionally hilarious sequence involves Tracy chasing a kid who stole a pocket watch down the street and out to the trainyard. As the two are running, Tracy is somehow able to find the breath to offer life advice and attempt to negotiate the kid down (“c’mere, kid, did you steal that man’s watch?”) and even advise him not to try and outrun the train. It’s like the most embarassing pseudo-parenting scene ever (“no! don’t you jump in front of that- don’t you dare! c’mere!”). The dialogue is absolutely terrible, especially when it’s trying to do hard boiled noir (“What’s your day off?” “It’s Sunday.” “Big world; must be Sunday somewhere.”).

The worst part is how ridiculous condescending the movie plot is. Not only is there too much expository dialogue (“I’m the District Attorney!” the District Attorney identifies himself not two lines into his first scene) and it’s simply too repetitive (we get that Tracy doesn’t want to get stuck behind a desk, somewhere between the nineteenth and thirty-fifth time he says it). The music, written by Danny Elfman, seems to have been directly lifted from his Batman soundtrack (apparently that was what Beatty hired him for).

And then there’s the kid. Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an example of how to write a child protoganist properly – embuing him with human qualities and personality. Dick Tracy illustrates all the common pratfalls that Hollywood movies make in involving children. The kid has no identity, apart from saving Dick’s life or humanising him – he’s sweet as pie, but, because the writers needed to insert a running a gag instead of any humanity, his defining trait is he’s always hungry. He even gets “an honorary detective certificate and badge” for his sidekick-ittude at one point. Don’t get me wrong, the kid isn’t the worst thing about the movie, it’s just an example of how damn lazy the film is.

Let’s be positive for a moment. I like the bright primary colour design of the film – it does look like a comic strip come to life. Of course, it’s a stretch to compare the film’s look to any of the modern stylised comic book films like Sin City, but its aesthetic is at least as competent as Burton’s version of Gotham in Batman, just with light instead of dark (although it does lack the snazzy gothic appeal that Burton brought to that film franchise). The backgrounds are beatifully rendered, seeming distinctly unreal – heavily stylised. There are some clever hokey touches – for example, a shack visibly shaking back and forth as a fist-fight wages inside – and the make-up design for each of the characters is impressive in a wonderful sort of way. It’s the kinda work you would see in Hollywood these days. yes, it’s ridiculous and skirts the line on camp, but it’s also endearing and fits the pulpy nature of the material. Did you know, as an aside, that Al Pacino designed his own look as “Big Boy Caprice”?

The film is interesting in that it has, on paper, a fantastic cast. Okay, once you ignore Madonna. Warren Beatty, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, James Caan, Paul Sorvino and literally dozens of other actors who would be recognisable were it not for all that makeup. However, it does nothing with them. Beatty is pretty disappointing in the lead role, given his fantastic selection of lead performances. Dick doesn’t even seem like a cardboard cutout (which would arguably seem appropriate), he seems like an actor reading his lines by rote. Ever wonder where Al Pacino discovered he liked the taste of scenery? There’s lots of shouting, panting and minor dramatic pauses in his delivery (“I. want. Dick. Tracy. DEAD!”). And Madonna is… well, she’s bad, but she’s not as bad as she has been known to be – but she’s still bad.

Stephen Sondheim apparently provided the soundtrack for the movie here, and it’s remarkably flat for his work. There’s nothing really special going on here. Though, at least, the musical numbers are somewhat more subtle than the script – which, I suppose, counts for something.

It’s a shame. This could easily have been a good film. It’s beautifully put together, but there’s just so much terrible going on here that it’s hard to look past the performances or the plotting or the dialogue. Ah well, them’s the breaks, kid.

2 Responses

  1. Wow. I actually love this movie and think that Pacino is quite excellent and Madonna is not too bad herself (and I love the music, especially Sooner or Later). It probably would make my top 5 of 1990.

    • It does seem like a love-it-or-hate-it film, but I just couldn’t get into it. Not that it was too childish or silly – I think Donner’s Superman is both of those in spades, and I adore it – but it just seems like too big a mess without a solid script and all the plotting, pacing and dialogue problems that stem from that.

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