Monday, March 26, 2012

Film Review: THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987, Brian de Palma)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 119 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith (AMERICAN GRAFFITI, STARMAN), Andy Garcia (THE GODFATHER PART III, BLACK RAIN), Billy Drago (TREMORS 4, DELTA FORCE 2), Patricia Clarkson (THE GREEN MILE, THE WOODS), Jack Kehoe (SERPICO, MIDNIGHT RUN), Don Harvey (CREEPSHOW 2, DIE HARD 2). Screenplay by David Mamet, music by Ennio Morricone, cinematography by Stephen H. Burum (CARLITO'S WAY, RAISING CAIN, ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS).
Tagline: "AL CAPONE. He ruled Chicago with absolute power. No one could touch him. No one could stop him. - Until Eliot Ness and a small force of men swore they'd bring him down."
Best one-liner: "Isn't that just like a wop? Brings a knife to a gun fight." (said in Sean Connery's Scottish brogue)

THE UNTOUCHABLES is a pretty solid flick. I saw it when I was rather young, and I remember it making quite an impression. Part buddy cop movie, part mobster epic, part Peckinpah-style shoot-'em-'up, part courtroom drama, part police procedural, part Sergei Eisenstein meets John Woo– it pretty much had it all. Initially I saw it because INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE had recently come out and it had launched a Sean Connery kick for me that never really did end, now that I think about it. I believe it may have been my first exposure to Brian de Palma and David Mamet, too. In the years hence, I know that Mamet has written works with greater depth and resonance than this, and I know that De Palma has made movies that are artsier and even more ludicrous, but it's nice to return to THE UNTOUCHABLES, like an old friend– an old friend with a reverb-heavy, kickass 80's Morricone soundtrack who luvs slo-mo squib action and disguising split-screen shots as ridiculous deep-focus shots.

Anyway, others, such as J.D. at Radiator Heaven, John Kenneth Muir, and Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur have pretty much said what needs to be said about the film in the realms of historical context, profundity, and classiness, so I suppose that instead of covering ground that's already been covered, I'll do what I am wont to do: leap headlong into the absurdity and minutiae of THE UNTOUCHABLES!

As such, I'll divide my observations into two parts: Drago-related, and non-Drago-related. The non-Drago-related section is gonna be pretty small, actually.

Non-Drago-Related Observations:

#1. Don Harvey.

Hey, look, guys– it's Don Harvey, handing Kevin Costner an axe! You remember Don Harvey, don't you? From DIE HARD 2 and CREEPSHOW 2? I've described him as proto-Peter Weller meets proto-Kevin Bacon, and hey– I like the guy. Nice to see you, Don.

#2. TENEBRE homage.

Oh, De Palma, I love ya. During a notable scene when Sean Connery is being stalked at his home, the camera shifts forward and backward, tracking across the exterior architecture, catching voyeuristic glimpses of Connery, and ending with a first-person P.O.V. of hands breaking into a window, just like the legendary crane shot in TENEBRE (which has nearly the exact same visuals, and ends with black-gloved hands wielding bolt-cutters to gain entrance to a window). Sure, it doesn't matter much in the long run, but it makes me kinda tingly when Argento gets a well-deserved salute. Unless said salute is being delivered by Diablo Cody. Or to Diablo Cody. Eh. Anyway, TENEBRE is notably referenced in RAISING CAIN, too.

#3. Connery's booze stash.

Throughout the film, my girlfriend was remarking that "there's no way Connery is sober during this," and I, not having seen the film in a dozen years or so, was saying "he's fighting alcohol bootleggers, let 'im total his tea." Anyway, during the sequence referenced in #2, Connery pulls a bottle o' contraband hooch out of his oven and has a snort. Also of note: Connery is apparently playing an Irish American with a Scottish accent, just as he played a Spaniard with a Scottish accent, and in the future would go on to play a Russian with a Scottish accent. A versatile fellow, he.

Drago-Related Observations:

Who is that terrifying, cheek-boney, crazy-eyed, thin white duke lurking in the shadows, there? Wait a minute, wait a minute... a sense memory is kicking in... could it be...

Holy shit, now the wheels are turning, ladies and gentlemen! "Smooth Criminal" was on BAD, released in late August 1987. THE UNTOUCHABLES was early June 1987. Could it be? Could the inspiration for "Smooth Criminal" be none other than ....BILLY DRAGO???

"As he came into the window, it was the sound of a crescendo"

"He left the bloodstains on the carpet"

"You've been hit by, you've been hit by, a smooth criminal"

And then, it turns out that Drago later appeared, in 2001, in a Michael Jackson video called "You Rock My World!" Is it possible that all of Jackson's surgeries involved wanting to be more like Billy Drago? Is MOONWALKER indirectly the result of Billy Drago's acting brilliance? Who is Annie? And more importantly, is she okay? So many unanswered questions.

But I believe I may have put the cart before the horse. Let me back up for a moment. Billy Drago, long beloved by this site, plays "Frank Nitti," the white-suit-clad doer of Al Capone's dirty-work. He blows up children, he skulks in the dark, he kills beloved characters, he makes thinly veiled threats and dons a devilish grin.

And he does it with style. That's Drago for ya. The man is one of a kind. Make no mistake about that. I may have alluded to other celebrities with "thin white duke," or "smooth criminal," or, hell, once I even called him "Scary Dean Stanton," but my point is this: you believe Drago, every step of the way. Here is an actor who connects with the material, brings it alive, even when he's bringing alive an attempted Chuck Norris makeout session. And by the time THE UNTOUCHABLES is over: you will believe a Drago can fly– (which again, returning to DELTA FORCE 2, appears to be a recurring career theme!)


-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

This film is chock full of Drago goodness... or nastiness depending on how you look at it. This may be my fave performance of his and it was great to see him get so much screen time in such a high profile film. He simply oozes creepy nastiness throughout the film and even gets to take out Sean Connery. How badass is that?

Never realized the Michael Jackson connection... that is kinda weird and can't be a coincidence.

Also, thanks for the shout-out, my friend.

Sean Gill said...


Supposedly, Drago even occasionally teaches an acting class– I think I need to write an article on THIS:

I've never quite felt like I was going to be grabbed through the screen and murdered by a YouTube video before. And you'd better believe I took my watch off!

Also, the MJ connection started out as a joke, but the more I thought about it, the weirder it got, until finally I think it hit on some kind of outlandish truth.

Judith Coyle said...

Hi - I have just watched this film for the first time and the minute I saw the white suited crim I thought, @It's MJ!" I think you are totally right.