Brian De Palma may know more about blood than any filmmaker in movie history. He understands blood the way great painters know paint, the way Rembrandt knew black.
Blood is De Palma's medium. In his new film, "The Untouchables," the stuff collects around the fallen in thick, syrupy puddles. Messages are scrawled in it and blood oaths are taken. But the blood in "The Untouchables" isn't the scarlety, pop blood of "Carrie" or "Scarface" or "Dressed to Kill." It's dark, black-cherry-red blood, blood that's meant to be taken seriously -- rich, portentous, mythic blood.
"The Untouchables" is something of a departure for De Palma -- an attempt to reach beyond the vulgar shallowness of "Wise Guys" and "Body Double," to give his work resonance and depth. And to assist him he's assembled a top-of-the-line team of collaborators, including David Mamet, who wrote the script, Ennio Morriconi, who did the score, and Giorgio Armani, who designed the fashions. But, though it's a better showcase for his talents than those earlier films, the movie isn't the redemption he hoped for.
De Palma's work in this picture isn't crass, as it was in "Wise Guys"; he's working seriously here. But "The Untouchables" is Brian De Palma in his grand, stately mode; it's De Palma without the fun.
He tells his story in an unhurried, all-in-good-time fashion, as if laying the groundwork for an epic. The year is 1930 and Al Capone (Robert De Niro) is the leader of all illegal activity in Chicago. In reaction to Capone's reign of terror, the Treasury Department has assigned Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) to come in and once again make Chicago a place for fine, upstanding folks to live.
But early on his crusade stalls. Ness isn't a cop, and he has no street experience. He's green, and to teach him the ropes, he asks a campaign-hardened Irishman named Malone (Sean Connery) to join the fight. The years of pounding a beat have made Malone a wily pro, and he knows better than to scrum with Capone unless Ness is willing to go the whole violent route. "And what are you prepared to do?" Malone puts to Ness, and Ness answers, "Everything within the law."
As Mamet and De Palma have conceived it, "The Untouchables" is a classic story of good vs. evil told in gangster movie terms. But the movie never brings its moral conflicts into focus. It has no atmosphere, no grit. The real root of the movie's problems may lie in the fact that Mamet has identified with the men of principle and De Palma with the scoundrels -- in other words, with Capone instead of the eagle-scout Ness.
On paper the combination of De Palma and Mamet might sound promising, but in practice it's not. Essentially their sensibilities are at war. De Palma is a voluptuary -- he loves to pile on the excess; Mamet is a minimalist -- he wants to prune everything down to its essence.
Mamet appears to have been the real culprit here. He has an academic's attitude toward pulp materials; he wants to redeem them, to remake them in high-art terms. In doing so, he seems to miss out on the real pleasures of the popular arts, the movies included.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a serious approach to the gangster genre. Francis Coppola used it in "The Godfather" films to get at something essential about the place of crime in American culture. And Coppola's movies also had their origins in pulp material, in the form of Mario Puzo's novel. Clearly Mamet and De Palma would like to produce a work of equal weight.
But all they have added to their pop material -- the movie is based loosely on the popular TV series, which in turn was based on the books and characters created by Oscar Farley -- is seriousness, and it's a dead weight around the movie's neck.
As a writer of dialogue, Mamet is a mixed blessing. He has a feel for arcane slang, and has the characters speak in a kind of Runyonesque patois. It's street-talk, but with a formal stiffness and artificiality -- an educated man's idea of barroom banter. And the hazy dime-store style he's given the film works against it. It's like Batman crossed with Ecclesiastes.
For all his brash, world-of-men posturing, he's a reformist. He wants to instruct and uplift. In an interview, Mamet stated that Ness and Malone represent "the sanctity of the community." And it's exactly what's wrong with the picture. De Palma seems hopelessly bored with his avenging angels. His heart isn't in it.
It's not much in the Ness character either. As Mamet has written him, Ness is not so much a character as a moral force. In the press, Kevin Costner's name is being mentioned in the same sentence with Gary Cooper's; they're calling him Hollywood's new leading man. But if his performance here is any indication, he's more like the new Arthur Kennedy. Costner's greatest failure here is that he is unable to convey the essential split in the character -- that his virtue is what's standing in the way of getting his job done. When Ness' principles are challenged, Costner emotes, but nothing comes across. He hasn't got the chops.
Mamet's words seem to fit Sean Connery's mouth better than they do the other performers. As the brawny pragmatist Malone, Connery has real brio and authenticity. Digging in his heels, he cuts into Malone. He's playing an Irishman with a Scottish brogue, but it doesn't really matter. He steals the show. When his character dies we lose our rooting interest and the movie loses its human center.
Authenticity is just what Robert De Niro's performance is lacking. In his recent movie roles, most of which have been like his role here -- showoffy cameos -- De Niro lends his presence but none of his talent. As Capone, De Niro's going for a broad, theatrical style of acting. He creates a satire on the idea of Capone. With his chest puffed out in front of him, he's a petty despot -- Il Duce in spats. But because the crime boss is supposed to represent the force of evil in the film, the absence of any real violence in his characterization is a crucial miscalculation. There's nothing for Ness and his band to fight against except this cartoon windbag, and it throws the movie's good vs. evil balance off.
With "The Untouchables," De Palma has definitely entered his mannerist period. Frame by frame the movie is exquisite, and perhaps the viewer is more impressed here by his mastery of the camera than ever before. But it's the human side of things that gives him fits.
In the past, De Palma has expressed his human side in what most people would call inhumanity -- his cynicism and perverse wit. And it comes out intermittently here, for example, when he cuts from a brutal head-bashing to a little girl saying her prayers. In moments like this, when De Palma's being De Palma, he can be coldly, monstrously funny. But, for the most part, in "The Untouchables" De Palma is trying to be a good boy. He's not himself.
And somehow we're put off here by the spectacular stuff he throws up onto the screen. De Palma's storytelling instincts have given way completely to his interest in film as a visual medium. His only real concern is his own style.
As a filmmaker, De Palma rarely passes up the chance to grandstand; he's a hot dog. And the stakeout at the train station here may be his greatest stunt yet. But you're too much aware of the director's manipulations; his virtuosity become oppressive. Our only interest really is in whether the filmmaker can sustain the feat. It's the kind of stunt that turns filmmaking into a kind of sideshow. It's stunning but in the way that great jugglers or magicians can sometimes be stunning. But it's not art, and, at least in the case of "The Untouchables," it's only marginally entertaining. The Untouchables, at area theaters, is rated R and contains scenes of graphic violence and offensive language.