Why can’t the movies do right by Dick Tracy? It’s not for lack of trying. The enduring comic-strip cop has been the star of everything from serials and B- movie features to kiddie cartoons, although none has fully captured the brazen strangeness of Chester Gould’s strip at its peak in the mid ’40s.
Like the comic strip, most Tracy productions of the past didn’t aspire to anything higher than sheer entertainment. But, in scaling the heights of self- conscious Pop Art, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy falls flat on its colorfully painted face. From the opening sequence, in which such fantastically made-up criminals as Little Face, the Brow, and the Rodent are gunned down seconds after they’re introduced, this film is a monument to gloriously produced waste.
As befits a $46.5 million project, this Tracy’s major accomplishments are technical. Flaunting the polychrome gloss of a pricey coffee-table book rather than the dark bleakness of the Tracy newspaper comic, the movie was designed to look gorgeous — at least in movie theaters. Unfortunately, Dick Tracy’s ballyhooed five-color scheme overpowers the home screen’s limited palette: The movie’s bright, pure red is precisely the color that TVs have the most trouble reproducing, and it bleeds over the borders of objects, transforming the movie’s crisp visual lines into a blurry wash. The soundtrack is too big for most home-video systems, also, with stylized gunfire and explosions that distort into fuzzy bursts of static on TV speakers.
On video, the film’s fatal flaw — the way it’s crammed full of actors and incidents while delivering little in the way of a plot — is magnified. The lavishly latexed cast scurries about on the small screen like gaudy mice, with no human context other than Charlie Korsmo’s delightful Kid, Glenne Headly’s sweet Tess Trueheart, and, oddly, Mandy Patinkin’s vulnerably spooky 88 Keys. None of the villains has enough screen time to do more than waggle his prosthetics at us, with the exception of Al Pacino, who bellows amusingly as Big Boy Caprice. As for Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney (sort of a microwaved version of Jean Harlow), the role exists as just another costume change in a career built on endless image-switching.
Warren Beatty is especially miscast in the starring role. As an actor, Beatty has specialized in vaguely neurotic idealists: Reds, Heaven Can Wait, even Ishtar. Dick Tracy, on the other hand, needs to be drawn as bluntly as he is in the comics — he needs to be a commanding presence — but Beatty plays him as a querulous lost soul. Even more than Michael Keaton’s withdrawn crime-fighter in Batman, Beatty is a black hole where Tracy’s hero should be.
Cut down to size on video, Dick Tracy is finally no more than kids’ stuff: The plot’s too simple-minded for anyone with an attention span, the colors are daycare-center bright, and the best performance is by a child. In fact, since the Tracy tape was released just in time for the holidays, young children will surely be asking for the video as a stocking stuffer. Absurdly, however, Touchstone Video is releasing the tape at a sky-high price that discourages buyers and favors renters.
The video label hasn’t even included the Roger Rabbit short that played with this film in theaters (Roller Coaster Rabbit), as it did with the video release of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. (The company has hinted that it’s holding off until it has enough Rogers for a compilation video.) Perhaps Touchstone believes this big bag of stale tricks is still some sort of event. But now that it’s on video, Dick Tracy seems less an event or even a movie than a souvenir — a memento of the marketing hype that is the greater work of art. D