It is very hard to be sympathetic for the plight of Elliot Ness.
Played by Kevin Costner, Elliot Ness is given so little to do in Brian DePalma’s film version of The Untouchables that you almost want to insert yourself into the film and ask him “What’s it all about?”. No motivation is given to him. He exists to be the good guy because the story requires him to be the good guy. Costner appears like he never bothered to ask for more.
But Prohibition is an item in American history that certainly requires an explanation. This was a time in which the U.S. Government more or less created organized crime by catering to national fears brought on by the influx of European immigrants. It was certainly not about “protecting the people” or protecting anyone. Far more people were killed than needed to be.
The film even brings that last item up but never bothers to explain it. One sequence involves a little girl who is killed in a department store explosion after the manager refuses to buy alcohol from the mafia. Is this followed up? Not really, outside of Ness gaining a certain motivation from meeting the mother. But the fact that a girl was killed in an unnecessary war on alcohol is never reflected upon, as it would have been in, say, Traffic.
Most know what the film is about. During Prohibition, Elliot Ness tries to bring down notorious gangster Al Capone. He recruits a band of cops and agents from the Treasury Department to help him. This ends with Ness being tested by the gangsters, as he has his friends killed and his family threatened.
Make no mistake, the film looks incredible. Every single character wears an Armani suit, the cinematography is excellent and really captures the mood of the period, as does Ennio Morricone’s score. There are some truly wonderful sequences here. One is a recreation of the Odessa steps sequence in which Ness must rescue Capone’s bookkeeper. Another has Sean Connery’s character Jim Malone pretending to kill a man in order to extract information.
Malone himself is a great achievement, and appears to do what Ness needed to do. He constantly asks himself why he does what he does. He adds a certain human element that was needed in the story. “How far are you ready to go” he constantly asks his partners. It is that sort of question that needed to be asked. He acts as the perfect mentor and a perfect foil to Ness. Connery actually deserved the Oscar he received for this role. It was definitely the stand out of the film.
Too bad the rest of the film cannot keep up. One unsettling item was just how quickly the film was ready to demonize alcohol. One Untouchable takes a victory drink from a leaking barrel. He is later killed with absolutely no remorse. His actions were not inherently wrong yet the film seemed eager to punish him. In a serial made from the 1930s, this would have made sense and may have even been applauded. But this was made in 1987 and was based on a television show from the 1960s. Does anyone else just have a sense of the hypocrisy involved in such a moral lesson? The producers have probably have had more than their fair share of alcohol (and for that matter, more than their fair share of drugs). It just makes no sense to me.
I have already lobbied my complaints against Ness. But Capone has the same problems. He is ultimately unnecessary and may have been better suited as an unseen evil. De Niro doesn’t play him any differently than he would play other role he has played. Again, I have to ask, what’s the point? To be the villain to Ness’ hero? Fine, but this is based on a real man with real complexities. I am sure Capone had quite a bit so say about his involvement in the business. But the words he says in the film ring false.
But as many mistakes as the film makes, it is still entertaining and is better crafted than many other films. So, what is this film? It’s a historical comic book. That’s really the best I can describe it. I cannot say that it is a bad film. It isn’t by a long shot. But it’s certainly not the best film that describes the prohibition era. Take it simply for what it is. Do not go looking for history. Don’t even go in looking for stand out performances. Look for DePalma doing what he does best-style over substance.