moviebuff801: Time Capsule Reviews: The Untouchables (1987)

Posted: November 24, 2012 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews, Time Capsule Reviews

Release Date: June 3rd, 1987

Running Time: 1 hour and 59 minutes

Written by: David Mamet

Based on: The 1957 book and 1959 T.V. series of the same name.

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia

While recently re-watching Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, based on a 1957 book and a 1959 T.V. series, the phrase “A for effort” crossed my mind, but then I quickly realized something.  Yes, this movie is one that relies more on style and surface material than the other elites of the crime genre, but that’s not necessarily something to hold against it.  The truth is, this is the kind of great entertainment that doesn’t need to delve all that deep into underlying themes or the psyches of the characters; it manages to be great by merely putting a hell of a lot of effort into its storytelling.  And, boy, does that effort pay off.

The time is the Prohibition Era, and notorious crime lord Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has his tentacles of power spread through nearly every crack and crevice in Chicago.  One of Capone’s biggest areas of influence is the control of liquor, supplying it at high prices and thus making quite a bit of profit from it.  In response to this, Bureau of Prohibition agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is tasked with taking down Capone and his operations through a series of raids, but quickly finds his efforts impeded by the corrupt cops that Capone has within the department.  This motivates Ness to assemble a team of honest lawmen to take down Capone, a team made up of himself, Jim Malone (Sean Connery), George Stone (Andy Garcia) and Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).  The team adopts the methods of Malone, which he refers to as “The Chicago Way,” and they soon find themselves taking down areas of Capone’s business left and right, which earns them the nickname “The Untouchables.”  But as The Untouchables’ campaign of justice grows and grows, they find themselves unprepared to deal with the consequences of it all.

Allow me to momentarily ignore the star-studded cast and skillful direction of Brian De Palma for a moment, and instead focus on the best thing that The Untouchables has going for it: the screenplay by the great David Mamet.  At its core, The Untouchables is nothing more than an extremely well-handled crime thriller, and Mamet’s script wisely has no pretentions about itself.  This is a movie that knows on which elements it needs to rely.  Rather than succeeding due to depth of story or character, The Untouchables instead succeeds because of its strength of characterization combined with its tightly-wound sense of storytelling.  Sure, we get some great dialogue, as is the M.O. with a Mamet script, but we also get a tremendous feel of time, place and suspense through his writing.  Now, having a great script is one thing, but you also need sufficient talent in front of and behind the camera to really bring it all to life, and The Untouchables most assuredly has that.

To be fair, though, when you have actors like Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Robert De Niro headlining a David Mamet screenplay, it’s hard to go wrong.  And, fortunately, every cast member delivers.  Kevin Costner embodies the righteous do-gooder qualities in very compelling ways, playing off Connery’s no-nonsense badass-ness effectively, leading to some great on-screen chemistry.  Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith provide solid supporting work, completing the “circle of camaraderie” within the team.  And, of course, Robert De Niro makes the most of an admittedly limited villain role and still manages to give us some great moments, particularly one involving a baseball bat.

Also bringing his A-game to the table is director Brian De Palma, who injects this film with a great amount of style and suspense.  A lot of the time, The Untouchables is simply a great movie to look at.  Through his flair of efficient lighting, set work and camera usage, De Palma effortlessly puts us right in the middle of its 1930’s setting, aided in part by Ennio Morricone’s oftentimes exciting score.

But as good as De Palma is at setting scenes, he also excels at executing them, and here I’m mainly referring to the film’s action sequences.  As the story suggests, there are a good number of shootouts in this movie, all of them exciting, but there’s one particular that stands out to me every time I watch this movie: the train station sequence.  By now, I’ve seen this movie quite a few times, but whenever I watch it, this scene never fails to have me on the edge of my seat.  The way De Palma stages this scene, mainly how he and David Mamet make a baby carriage the centerpiece of the suspense, is absolutely gripping, and De Palma’s use of editing here helps make this a pretty iconic setpiece for me.  And then there’s the climatic courthouse chase that’s another example of De Palma’s tight direction.

While The Untouchables doesn’t reach for the heights of a crime movie by Martin Scorsese, for instance, it isn’t trying to, so I can’t really hold that against it when the kind of thriller it winds up being is still great in its own right.  It’s an exciting and very well-made crime movie that should satisfy fans of the genre who haven’t seen it already.


  1. CMrok93 says:

    Good review. Total classic through and through. De Niro’s performance was a bit of a disappointment, but everything else from the old-school action, look and feel, and style of De Palma, there’s a lot to love and have a great time with.

    • moviebuff801 says:

      Thanks. :) Yeah, if I had to single out one thing about the movie that’s not quite up to par with everything else, it’d be De Niro’s performance. But that’s due largely to the script.

  2. Yeah i liked this film :D

  3. pgcooper1939 says:

    Love The Untouchables. Great film, great review.

  4. Nice, Moviebuff.

    This isnt the type of movie people dig for themes in, really. Its definitely just more cops and crooks entertainment. And I think you pegged the secret of its success. A Mamet script and a loaded cast… how can you go wrong? :D

    Good one!

  5. Nic says:

    I watched The Godfather on Thanksgiving and I got a bug up my butt afterwards to re-watch The Untouchables. Now I really need to to it. Such a good film.

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