The Untouchables
directed by Brian De Palma
(Paramount, 1987)

There are many times and places in history that are filled with violence, crime and brutality but which have since been romanticized and glorified on the silver screen. One is Prohibition-era Chicago, when gangs under the thumb of Al Capone tore the city apart and made a mockery of law enforcement.

That's not the case with The Untouchables, which begins with an extortion bombing that kills a 10-year-old girl. There's nothing glamorous or romantic about it.

Enter Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), a U.S. Treasury officer sworn to put Capone behind bars. With a hand-picked team of officers not on the mob payroll, he takes on organized crime in a big way.

As Ness, Costner is a white knight, pure and unwavering in his objective. He's stiff, naive and a bit dull at the start, but he quickly toughens up under the tutelage of his first and best choice for his squad, the stalwart Irish beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery). Connery shines as one of the few bright spots in a dirty department, a rare honest man whose blunt manner drives the team.

Joining them on the squad are young police recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia) and federal tax investigator Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). Although the real Untouchables were a larger squad, this tight quartet manages to do the job in a believable fashion. None of these men were prepared for the task that faced them; all rose to the challenge against incredible odds, although some paid a steep price for heroism.

The best performance here, however, is that of Robert De Niro as Al Capone. He's hearty and charismatic. He's cold, calculating and sinister. He's funny. He's terrifying in his rage. He is Capone.

Director Brian De Palma's flair for storytelling really stands out in this film, with scattered bits of humor relieving scene after scene of white-knuckled tension.

The juxtaposition of a particularly horrific downtown murder with scenes of Capone enjoying a fine uptown opera is an example of excellent film-making. The stand-off at the Chicago train station is dramatic action at its best.

This is not a historically accurate depiction of the events surrounding Ness and Capone. But it's thrilling drama that succeeds in presenting the flavor of the time, when lives were bought and sold in the cause of an unpopular law.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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