For over a decade — ever since Star Wars, in fact — American movies have been edging closer and closer to comic books. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Warren Beatty’s attempt to ace the summer-movie sweepstakes finally takes us all the way. More than Batman or Superman, Popeye or Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy has been fashioned as a live-action comic strip — a lavishly eye-popping Day-Glo gangster movie. The film’s airy pleasures include madly color-coordinated sets; stylized close-ups ripped straight from the Sunday funnies; villains who look like mutants (Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles and William Forsythe as Flattop keep shoving their squishy, alien mugs into the camera); and a hero whose most distinguishing feature is a banana yellow trench coat that looks good enough to eat.
Beatty and Madonna are at the top of the credits, but they aren’t the stars of Dick Tracy. The color scheme is. From first shot to last, the movie is a succulent rainbow of primary reds and blues, lurid greens and pinks and oranges, and (of course) raincoat yellows. The whole film looks good enough to eat. Much of the action is swathed in velvet shadow, but that just makes you notice all the more how Tracy’s coat matches the yellow trashcan in an alleyway, or how the impossibly tall big-city buildings seem to glow from within, or how the streetlights and fairy-tale moonbeams bounce lovingly off rain-swept streets. It’s as if a ’30s gangland melodrama had been colorized by Andy Warhol.
Beatty and his team of collaborators have heightened the vibrantly tawdry urban night world of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip. Indeed, there’s something almost fetishistic about Dick Tracy’s gorgeous visual design. The movie is like one of those aestheticized yuppie diners that serve white wine with meat loaf. As an exercise in American pop surrealism, the picture succeeds brilliantly, yet it also feels thin and dissociated. Dick Tracy is less a movie than a dazzling slide show. What’s missing is the throwaway vulgarity that gave the original Tracy comic strip its rude, no-nonsense thrust.
As the story unfurls, the low-life gangster Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) has deep-sixed his rival, Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino), and declared himself king of the local mob. Who can save the city? Tracy can! But can the lone-wolf detective save himself from the bad-girl machinations of Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), a beautiful torch singer desperate to be frisked by our hero?
The plot would have been more involving had someone put a kinkier spin on the ’30s melodramatics. The screenplay team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. (Top Gun, Legal Eagles) has come up with another of their perfunctory, freeze-dried jobs. These guys are outline writers posing as scriptwriters. They know how to pile up scenes (the movie is all transitions), but they haven’t figured out a way of making anything matter.
Beatty looks as if he’s still hiding out from Barbara Walters. Here he is, helming the most high-profile movie of the year, and he plays Tracy as a charming, polite nothing, a Clark Kent with no Superman inside him. The idea behind the casting seems to have been Warren Beatty = Superstud = Mythical All-American Hero. But if Dick Tracy is anything, he’s a hard-nosed customer with snarling resolve. Beatty’s appeal has always been his softness, his half-submerged vulnerability. He’s such a gentle actor that he all but disappears inside that trench coat.
Madonna does better. Her rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s acridly sexy ”I Always Get My Man” gives the picture some atmosphere, and when Breathless has to coo sweet nothings at Tracy, Madonna’s eyes speak sleazy volumes. But she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.
Other than Tracy, the main character is Big Boy Caprice. As Pacino plays him, hunched and beady-eyed, he’s a ghoulish vulgarian, like someone running a deli counter inside a morgue. Pacino’s abrasive scenery chewing certainly gives the picture a jolt of energy. Still, there’s not much charm to this ranting performance.
Since Big Boy is strictly business (he takes no sadistic pleasure in evil), Pacino can’t give the picture a leering, wicked center, the way Robert De Niro did in The Untouchables or Jack Nicholson did in his great one-man parody of villainy in Batman. When comic-strip movies become too literal-minded, they deny their characters any human shadings. Actors, after all, aren’t the same as drawings on a newspaper page; all the visual stylization in the world can’t make them so. Dick Tracy is an honest effort but finally a bit of a folly. It could have used a little less color and a little more flesh and blood. B-