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With the current spate of big-budget cinematic adaptations, you’d be forgiven for forgetting there are more to comic books than just superheroes. While the “funny pages to film” trend notoriously hasn’t produced many works of great quality – the less said about both Garfield films the better – there are a few notable intrigues, such as 1990’s Dick Tracy.

Dick Tracy was one of the last films of 70s superstar Warren Beatty. It was his participation in Arthur Penn‘s Bonnie & Clyde that kicked off New Hollywood, paving the way for the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Though he’s virtually unknown to modern audiences, twenty years ago he was a big enough name to not only convince a major studio to bankroll at $50 million adaptation of Chester Gould‘s lurid 1930s comic book cop, but to let him produce, direct and star in it.

On first glance, Beatty seems like a perfect fit for the role: dark-haired, lantern-jawed, masculine. Dick Tracy was very much a vehicle for his star power, on the wane though it was at the time. It’s believed he pitched the project as the first in a series of summer tentpole movies to rival Tim Burton‘s Batman. A minor miscalculation on his part was in underestimating the importance of Batman as a protagonist and the need for something resembling depth.

The film is a visually impressive piece of work that perfectly captures the artificial, pop-art-preempting world of Gould’s strip. Tracy is dressed in banana yellow and the villains, including Al Pacino‘s scenery-chewing “Big Boy” Caprice, are so grotesque they make Danny DeVito‘s Penguin look positively naturalistic


Substituting primary colours for Batman’s neon, Dick Tracy is a morally simplistic tale, binary in its depiction of good and evil: Beatty’s Tracy is trying to clear up the streets while Caprice is trying to assemble a city-wide crime syndicate, handing out concrete overcoats and machinegunning messages into walls. The only touch of ambiguity comes in the form of sultry lounge singer Breathless Mahoney, played by Beatty’s then-squeeze Madonna, whose attempts to seduce Tracy threaten his relationship with good girl Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley). There’s also an orphan kid in it called Kid because that’s the kind of film this is.

Broad and archetypal, Dick Tracy‘s at its best when it’s being inventive. When Tracy teaches a thug a lesson, bouncing him off the walls, the shack they’re in rocks back and forth like the one in Chaplin‘s Gold Mine. The violence remains resolutely bloodless; it’s all very family friendly. But more often than not it’s just a bit bland.

Beatty goes for resolute and unemotional in the title role, but just comes across as wooden. Pacino, however, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the hunchbacked, monstrous Caprice. His overblown New York mobster is certainly fun enough to watch, but his inept villainy never really provides any sense of jeopardy. If Tracy occasionally seems like a superhero in the film, it’s only because it never feels like he’s in any real danger.

Luckily, Madonna adds a hint of the risque with the occasional come-on – a line about “sweating better in the dark” cuts it a bit close for a PG, but her whole character motivation is that she wants to sleep with Tracy, so suffice to say it all still feels a little weak. Dick Tracy is a kids’ film and a conservative one at that. Tracy’s choice is ultimately between freedom (Breathless) and the nuclear family (Truheart and Charlie Korsmo‘s semi-feral Kid), but Tracy is so virtuous that it’s difficult to buy his dilemma.

In short, Dick Tracy is about as far away from Batman as you can get: where Batman was dark, Gothic, and pro-vigilante, Tracy is light, poppy, and pro-establishment. If this look-back has been critical, it’s only because it’s a frustrating film. It’s caricatures are amusing, but never anything more than that. There’s no pathos. The climax literally sees the love interest tied to the tracks and that the villain’s demise is reminiscent of Nicholson‘s Joker just reminds you how flat and affected it all seems. This feels like the backdrop to a better movie, a movie less interested in merchandise and more in emotional content.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. If you’re a fan of spinning newspaper headlines, you’ll find a lot to like in Dick Tracy, and, after all, it is a kid’s film. Beatty’s been planning a sequel for years now, though the rights have been tied up in litigation. At 76, he’s definitely too old to pull of a return to the role, but with someone like Josh Brolin onboard? Heck, I’d watch that.

Till then, here’s a scene that typifies the ’90s incarnation:

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Robert Wallis

You can also read Rob's work at www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.com.