DICK TRACY (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Warren Beatty

Written by: Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr.

(based on the DICK TRACY comic strips by Chester Gould)

Starring: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Paul Sorvino, James Caan & Catherine O’Hara

Based on the 1930s comic strip by Chester Gould, DICK TRACY is a strange movie. The visuals are entrancing, the style evokes a feeling of old-fashioned entertainment, and over-the-top makeup brings Gould’s illustrated gangsters to life. However, the film also feels hindered by its bafflingly too simple/too complex screenplay. This will be explained later and one particular subplot is eye-rollingly clichéd in a bad way. This 90s comic adaptation has mostly been forgotten to the annals of time, but it was a big financial success at the time of its release and even won three Academy Awards (Best Original Song, Best Makeup, and Best Art Direction). As of today, DICK TRACY is visually stunning entertainment and its faults (mostly) lend themselves to the film’s overall charm.

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Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) is a hard-nosed detective and his favorite hobby is taking bad guys off the streets, much to the dismay of his angsty girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). Dick finds himself facing his toughest foe yet when mobster Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) takes charge of a city-wide organized crime empire, leading to lots of robberies and murders. To add even more to Dick’s heavy load, he’s recently taken on young apprentice “The Kid” (Charlie Korsmo) and is attempting to get nightclub dancer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) to testify against Big Boy. Dick isn’t the only crime-fighter in town though, because masked vigilante The Blank has also begun killing off mobsters. Dick certainly has his work cut out for him.

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DICK TRACY is one of those uncommon instances when a screenplay suffers from being too simple and trying to do too much at the same time. That complaint sounds like an oxymoron, but hear me out. The main plot concerns a gun-toting detective trying to take a bunch of gangsters off the city streets, with a big one as a prime target. At the same time, that gangster is trying to take over the city. There’s also a forced love triangle between Dick, Trueheart and Breathless that feels shallow and clichéd…and Dick is also taking a young orphan under his wing…and violent vigilante The Blank is on the loose. All of these storylines receive a significant amount of screen time, but all of them feel shallow and underdeveloped as a result. Though there is fun to be had in watching this movie, it seems cramped and superficial. This is especially true of the anti-climactic finale, which is downright lazy in how it concludes two major plotlines.

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What DICK TRACY lacks in story, it makes up for in style. This movie is gorgeous. Warren Beatty decided upon a pastel of bright colors and never deviates from them. Every single frame appears vibrant and provides more than a fair share of atmosphere. Computer graphics were interspersed with the sets and they blend into the film’s cool comic-inspired tone. The makeup effects are awesome to behold as well. Pretty much every gangster was fitted with some sort of prosthetic to help the actor resemble Gould’s original drawings. Al Pacino is hunched over and has a huge cleft chin, while William Forsythe has a square head and a goofy haircut. There’s also Pruneface, appropriately named for his wrinkled appearance, and Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, a nervous wreck of a henchman.

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DICK TRACY’s performances range across the board. Warren Beatty is watchable in the lead role, though I’ve never really seen an impressive performance from him yet. Meanwhile, Al Pacino seems to be having a blast as Big Boy Caprice. Known for playing menacing Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER and over-the-top Tony Montana in SCARFACE, Pacino was clearly having a good time in the role of this purposely cartoony gangster. Charlie Korsmo (WHAT ABOUT BOB?, HOOK) is well cast as The Kid, essentially coming off like a less wussy version of Batman’s Robin. Madonna is surprisingly good as femme fatale Breathless, while Glenne Headly is bland as Tracy’s concerned girlfriend/damsel in distress. As far as the rest of the notable performers go, Paul Sorvino shows up for a blink-and-you-missed-it role, Dustin Hoffman’s Mumbles is woefully unfunny, and William Forsythe’s Flattop is the most unexpectedly creepy character in the film.

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DICK TRACY was visually stunning at the time of its release and that cinematic flare has held up over two decades later. The film suffers from feeling too simple and too complicated at the same time, which doesn’t seem like a legitimate complaint until you actually watch the movie. The performances are all over the place, with Pacino, Madonna, Forsythe, and Korsmo sticking out as highlights…and Beatty, Headly and Hoffman falling by the wayside of mediocrity. Still, I had a good time watching DICK TRACY. Though the film’s writing is never on the same level as its breathtaking visuals, DICK TRACY will likely entertain viewers of all ages.

Grade: B

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