"I grew up in a tough neighborhood. We used to say, you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word."
The Untouchables is what every Hollywood movie should be: a talented director, a great script, a top-flight cast, and the sort of lavish production values that only a major studio can provide combined together into a film that works on just about every level. Brian DePalma brings plenty of his auteur flourishes but stays on his best behavior, delivering an impeccable level of craftsmanship and visual flair while avoiding the outrageous excess he'd become notorious for. David Mamet's screenplay offers an engrossing story and cracking dialogue without lapsing into his artier affectations. Kevin Costner, still a young and hungry actor before his ego got the best of him, makes a fine leading man, with stellar supporting turns from Sean Connery (in the role that won him an Oscar) and Robert DeNiro (well before he sold out his career). The stars really aligned for this one.
Nominally based on the old TV series starring Robert Stack, the movie plays fast and loose with both its source material and actual history, but does so in such a crowd-pleasing manner that few could complain. Kevin Costner stars as the square-jawed Treasury Department agent Eliot Ness, a well-meaning but inexperienced do-gooder. Quickly humiliated in his first attempt to crack through the rampant crime and corruption of 1930s Chicago, Ness is befriended only by the gruff and irascible Malone (Connery), a beat cop who's been around the block enough times to know how things really work in the city but still too honest to be bribed. Determined to bring down Al Capone (DeNiro in an appropriately showboating performance) by any means necessary, the two enlist the unlikely help of a green police academy rookie (Andy Garcia) and a federal tax accountant (Charles Martin Smith) for their squad of "Untouchables", the only law enforcement officers in the city not on the payroll of organized crime.
The movie has gangsters, and cops, and guns, and booze, and vintage cars, and huge operatic shootouts. It's a story of honor, family, machismo, and brotherhood. DePalma's love of the movies as an art form is evident in every frame, and not just the classic gangster pictures. A horseback raid at the Canadian border recalls great Westerns past, and the bravura train station climax was designed in deliberate homage to Battleship Potemkin, a sequence the director pays loving tribute to while making emphatically his own. It's an iconic scene, perfectly constructed and played out with nail-biting suspense, and it's only one of many such moments in the film. DePalma adores the set-up and staging of his elaborate set-pieces, carefully laying out his dominoes with nervous tension and watching them fall into place exactly as he planned.
The Untouchables was a massive box office hit in the summer of 1987, was nominated for a bunch of major awards (including Connery's Oscar win) and went on to be recognized as a classic. This is grand entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition, and it holds up just as well today as the day it premiered.
The HD DVD:
The Untouchables has been released on the HD DVD format by Paramount Home Entertainment. A comparable Blu-ray edition is also available.
Unlike most Paramount releases, the disc does not automatically open with a lengthy HD DVD promo. Has the studio finally given up that annoying practice?
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Untouchables HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The picture looks excellent, with a few caveats. It's a little soft but has good detail, strong colors, and nice black levels and shadow detail. The source elements are very clean and the movie has only a minimal amount of visible film grain. Some extremely minor edge ringing is present over the opening title and near the end as Ness chases Nitti around the courthouse roof, but is not at all problematic for the vast majority of the movie. The digital compression has a couple of hiccups with frozen grain patterns in one or two places, and some scenes look better than others, but overall the movie looks fantastic for its age. At its best, you can't believe the picture is more than a day old. This is a terrific, film-like image that does the movie justice.
The Untouchables HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or DTS 6.1 formats. The audio hasn't aged as well as the picture, unfortunately. Ennio Morricone's score occasionally has a nice swell, and the opening theme delivers some satisfying low-end thump, but general fidelity is dated and bright. Dialogue sounds thin and gunshots have little kick. Despite the multi-channel encoding, I can only recall hearing a single directional surround effect the entire movie. The track is fine for what it is, but doesn't stand up to modern film mixes.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English subtitles for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The bonus features on this HD DVD title are duplicated from the DVD edition. All of the supplements from the Special Collector's Edition DVD have carried over. The video featurettes were produced by Laurent Bouzereau and feel like they were designed as one long documentary that's been split into pieces to reduce the interviewees' royalty payments.
- The Script, The Cast (19 min., SD) - Brian DePalma starts things off by admitting that this was not a personal project, that he deliberately sought out a studio picture that might be a commercial success so that he could continue developing other films on his own. Producer Art Linson is also interviewed, and both men are very frank that they couldn't care less about the old TV series. Other topics of discussion include casting the major roles (the studio wanted Bob Hoskins as Capone), and how DeNiro's weight gain was enhanced with makeup and a fat suit.
- Production Stories (17 min., SD) - Director of Photography Stephen Burum says that he wanted to shoot the movie in black & white. This piece also looks at the production design, vintage cars, sets, and the costumes by Giorgio Armani.
- Reinventing the Genre (14 min., SD) - Brian DePalma's stylistic contribution to the film is analyzed.
- The Classic (6 min., SD) - Ennio Morricone's score is highlighted, as are test screenings, the opening weekend, and the movie's box office success.
- Original Featurette: "The Men" (6 min., SD) - A vintage promotional piece with set interviews and a plot recap.
- Theatrical Trailer (3 min, HD) - The trailer has been cropped to 16:9 and isn't in very good condition. It also has bad voiceover narration and sets the wrong tone for the movie.
A great movie gets splendid High Definition video treatment. The sound is a little dated and the bonus features don't amount to much, but the disc still earns a very high recommendation.
Black Rain (HD DVD) - Andy Garcia
Goodfellas (HD DVD) - Robert DeNiro
Mission: Impossible (HD DVD) - Brian DePalma
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