The depressing timidity of Brian De Palma’s mercenary The Untouchables, a paycheck directorial role if ever there was one, is consummated in the centerpiece sequence, a verbatim riff on the famous staircase rumble and tumble from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (which was itself not as good as anything in Eisenstein’s prior film Strike). De Palma’s version is technically proficient – maybe even perfect – but purposeless and entirely rudimentary, excoriated of Eisenstein’s surrealistic flourishes and political-revolution tectonics. De Palma’s detractors tend to think of him as a Hitchcock plagiarist who debases that cinematic master of the macabre, but their argument falls apart when De Palma’s hedonistic formal pirouettes and wry, audience-blackmailing comic filigrees push Hitchcock way over the sanity edge. For scholars who ghettoize De Palma as a copy-cat and a reduction-artist, the real lynchpin of their argument should be The Untouchables, which repeats Eisenstein only to render him null and void.
Ultimately, though, The Untouchables is less a failure of political query than a failure of verve. The typically demonic De Palma, capable of hybridizing scores of aesthetic and thematic influences into his own unorthodox jambalaya, is playing it completely straight here. Gone is his let-it-burn temerity, his wild oscillations in tone and mood, his devil-may-care attitude to intrepidly wandering into whatever psychological crevice of his characters he found most interesting that day of filming. His usual interplay of ejaculation and emasculation and his remarkably complicated, passive-aggressive, and closeted-critical attitudes toward his typically male (chauvinist) protagonists have been replaced by a smorgasbord of “decents”. Adequate directing, solid acting, take-it-or-leave-it writing courtesy of David Mamet in his usual rat-a-tat, pretentious register that is totally unaccommodating to De Palma’s typically playful tonal swivels.
The narrative is boiler-plate, but De Palma never turns up the heat or throws in the toxic acid, never suggesting any thematic magma coursing beneath. Kevin Costner plays up and coming Chicago detective Elliot Ness (hey it’s based on a real guy so it must be a mature film!). Convinced the Chicago PD is in the back pocket of infamous gangster and tax evader Al Capone (Robert De Niro), Ness forms a crew of outsiders to take Capone down, including aging Irish mentor figure Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), youthful Italian firebrand George Stone (real name Giuesppe Petri, and played by Andy Garcia) and nebbish but committed Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).
That’s it, basically, and in this case, that really is it. A basic premise can be a godsend for a devil like De Palma, but he does little to elevate it or turn its basic causal reasonings and relationships into pulp-poetic rhymes. It’s superfluous stuff, superficial to the core, but De Palma doesn’t feel proud of the surface-first spirit, expending little energy dousing the action in the kerosene of grungy B-picture zest or the fiendish elan of overt stylization. It’s all too slick, muscular but anonymous, focusing on size rather than vivacity and never permissive to the eccentric De Palma-ian contusions of ludicrousness or the demonic lift of pure, unadulterated frenzy he found even in other merely-competent, for-hire works like Scarface and Mission Impossible. There’s just no mood to the action, no personality to the rudimentary suspense, no sting in the tail of this film. It’s the kind of mildly respectable, and thus totally empty, work sanctioned by every production company in Hollywood. All well and good, but who wants a director like De Palma to fit in and court the mainstream when he could be playing around in his usual viper’s nest?
I don’t want to sound overly harsh, but I also wish the film were itself harsher and more hostile, either giddier in its aplomb or more alienating and difficult. There’s nothing less than perfectly adequate about The Untouchables. But the film is distressingly content to aim for adequacy rather than divine debauchery, where this kind of hard-nosed, leather-faced gangster pic could have strived. Where’s the film Howard Hawks would have made in the ‘30s, or the fire-and-brimstone walking threat Sam Fuller would have ushered out in the ‘50s? Comparatively, The Untouchables has a supply cash of weaponry, but no thematic or stylistic fangs to disarm us with. It’s supreme mastery of the basic and its “only the facts” tone only serve to sabotage any effervescent B-movie pulp pleasures that De Palma might have laid for us like traps. It’s too middlebrow to head for either register that De Palma typically stirs together: debased and dysfunctional camp or thoughtful avant-garde. It’s hardly his worst film, but it is one of his least interesting and, frankly, if someone were to tell me they considered it near De Palma’s zenith, I would immediately find them much less inspired company to keep.