Directed by Warren Beatty
Written by Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr., Bo Goldman, and Warren Beatty (based on the comic strips by Chester Gould)
There is, unfortunately, no way I see for any review of Disney's adaptation of Dick Tracy—at least not any positive review—to come off substantively different from every other positive review of Dick Tracy written since 1990. Roger Ebert's ecstatically positive review is more-or-less the same as Tim Brayton's merely very positive review, though the latter was written a quarter century later, and, in its way, that says something extremely complimentary about the film—that it remains something to behold. It also underlines the fundamental problems with it, but for now, let's situate it in history, as Touchstone Pictures' other big movie for the summer of 1990, which was supposed to be Touchstone's only big movie for the summer of 1990, except one of Touchstone's medium-sized movies from the spring proved to have legs (and knew how to use them, sure). This was Pretty Woman, a movie Michael Eisner hadn't especially wanted, preferring instead to lavish all the resources in the world upon Tracy, a project Eisner had been involved with years earlier at Paramount.
Its development goes back even further than that, but it's good enough just to trace it to the early 1980s, when Walter Hill sought out actor-turned-producer-turned-megastar-turned-director Warren Beatty for the lead role. Beatty's connection to the Tracy comic strips was foundational; he claimed, anyway, that he learned to read off of them, and of course he was old enough that a gangster strip with its heyday in the early 1940s could be important to him. Though a celebrated filmmaker himself, he did not—at first—want to direct the movie that would become, by my reckoning, his grandest statement as a stylist. (His grandest statement overall, I guess, remains either Reds, which netted him his directing Oscar, though it's in contention for the brownest Goddamn movie ever made and comes off like middling Lean, or Bulworth, a movie nobody's seen since 1998, and I'm okay for now to remain in suspense as to whether it has aged terribly or well.)
The project passed through numerous directors after Beatty usurped Hill over artistic differences, but it never led to anything till finally Beatty took the reins, in the process personally buying the film rights, so that to this day Beatty alone can decide if there'll ever be another adaptation. (I hope Moon Maid's in it. Tracy got weird and pandering in the Space Age.) He took the project back to Eisner—now, of course, at Disney. As Eisner had an empire to run, it naturally became the responsibility of Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Katzenberg had so much fun managing Beatty and watching their agreed-upon $25 million budget become fifty—which then ballooned to something along the lines of a hundred, once Eisner's enormous marketing effort kicked in—that he wrote a whole big memo about it. Ostensibly, he addressed the state of the film industry and Disney in particular. Sub rosa (and barely that), it was about how his boss had permitted their company to waste a staggering amount of money thanks to his obsequiousness to a star and, worse, an egotistical desire to make a mark, rather than just a profit. The irony was probably not intentional (in case these might've ever seemed like soberly-considered points, he named The Rocketeer as the kind of event film Disney still needed to make, a bit of a self-own considering that The Rocketeer was plainly water from the same well). This is roughly the point that Eisner and Katzenberg's increasingly-fraught relationship devolved into open hostility. It may be the point that Katzenberg buried any hope that Eisner and the board would reward him with the Disney presidency when Frank Wells retired, even if Katzenberg refused to accept that, to them, he was already under the ground. Yet it didn't hurt his argument that Pretty Woman, the movie Katzenberg was most proud of making for 1990, had raked in something close to half a billion dollars, while Tracy didn't even quite make its money back.
In fairness, I don't think Beatty can be blamed for a mega-marketing campaign that sought to synergize Happy Meals with the blocky heroism of a fascist cop named "Penis" and the collection of deformed monsters who make up most of the rest of the Tracy cast. Likewise, it's hard to blame Eisner for pinning his dreams of franchised blockbusters to Beatty's vision. I mean... it's right there. Batman is right there. As near as I can tell, this was pure convergent evolution, with no way for Batman, released in 1989 after principal photography on Tracy had already wrapped, to directly influence Beatty, and Beatty clearly had his own long-held ideas about what Tracy would be; at most, Eisner had Warners' comic hero film on his radar and saw the opportunity to ride a wave with a project that was already developed, and simply aped Batman's epochal marketing push because it had worked. But it is extremely hard to escape the conviction that Tracy was the first in that brief spurt of Batman knock-offs, where every studio around tried their hand at recreating its success (as noted, Disney tried twice), seizing on whatever pulp and four-color IPs were handy, and identifying Batman's success to be the result of some reproducible artistic factor—specifically, Tim Burton's raging hard-on for an Expressionist-tinged fantasia of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—rather than, as we know today, the basic fact that kids just love motherfucking Batman.
Tracy is so much like Batman it's nuts: an iconic sequential art detective whom we meet years into his campaign against injustice does battle with a freakish crime boss played by a New Hollywood superstar in a scene-chewing, larger-than-life performance, who gets himself thrown off a tall structure in the climax after threatening the detective's babe. This all happens within an aggressively-artificial stylistic-throwback universe that threatens to make the entire film an exercise in production designing an evil city, whilst a dark, thrumming Danny Elfman score exists in between the musical contributions of a hot contemporary act, in that case Prince, in this case Madonna, though at least in this case the director didn't have Madonna foisted upon him. (Of course, with Madonna, it even anticipates Batman Returns, but that's another thing entirely.) Even the central performances of the heroes' civilian sides have a curious smaller-than-life quality to them, though this obviously works better for Bruce Wayne. It's probably the Elfman score that really seals it, inasmuch as Elfman's Tracy score is Elfman's Batman score done by an orchestra who keeps forgetting how Elfman's Batman theme is supposed to go, so they keep starting it over.
Beatty's Tracy is arguably more like Batman than Batman, in terms of the purity of its adaptation—which is also where it departs. Burton's Batman is a product of its chiefest influences, black-and-white movies (hell, silent movies), and sometimes Batman forgets to remind you that Gotham City isn't a real place. This is to say that Batman's chiefest influence isn't the comic. Tracy's, however, is, and everything about it is intended to somehow manifest the aesthetic of Tracy's color Sundays and the propulsive energy of its daily strips, from Vittorio Storaro's cinematography to the pacing that Beatty and editor Richard Marks impose on the storytelling, though the film is probably at its most effective when it's barreling through musical sequence montages that pare this down to pure pop art impression, my favorite single image of the film being a bit where yellow-coated Tracy takes a haymaker swing at an approaching army of similarly-colorful thugs and all of them fall down, like bowling pins. (It can resemble Adam West's Batman as much as Burton's, honestly.)
More than anyone, it owes its look to Beatty's production designer, Richard Sylbert, who rightly won an Oscar, and his costume designer, Milena Canonero, who only got nominated. That seems unfair, considering that on Tracy these were even more unified than usual: Beatty was determined to bring the comic strip to life directly; accordingly, Tracy is a blindingly colorful film, rightfully said to be one of the most successful runs ever at reproducing the gaudiness of three-strip Technicolor in modern cinema. (I hold that Flash Gordon is the most successful, but Tracy's close.) It's defined by a limitation: as much as possible, it uses only the colors most easily achievable in the four-color printing process that defined the bold, simplistic look of comic strips and comic books until roughly the 1980s (and arguably until the computer coloring revolution of the 1990s, which I often think was a mistake). This means yellows, blues, searing reds—plus the complementary colors which their combinations made possible, oranges, greens, purples—captured by Storaro (who probably should've won his nomination, too) with almost impossible saturation and boosted further by big sheets of absurdly-unmotivated colored lighting and deep, enveloping blacks. It's a film that seems to spend half its time in noirish silhouettes, ink-black figures with bleeding CMY outlines, and the other half in split-diopters, deployed not to partition the frame but to unify it in comic-like flatness. It spends all of its time luxuriating in the luridness of it all.
That's the only word to describe form and content alike: besides Madonna in frequent undress, it's also a mesmerizing showcase for makeup designers John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler (I'm not sure why they ever bothered nominating anybody else for their Oscar), and "makeup design" almost seems like too generic a term for the creatures of Tracy's rogue's gallery, though it's probably for the best that their gravest nightmare, Little Face (so-named for the cranium like an orbiting moon), is only in the film long enough to get blown away alongside a half-dozen other abominations. They occupy a world as unreal as they are: probably not feeling it can quite get away with the modal background of a comic strip (you know, literally nothing, or close to it), Tracy's city is still an abstract neverwhen, sets decorated with only the most essentialized detail, and the backdrops typically not even granted the solidity of miniatures (though a few are used to gesture weakly at dimensionality). Instead, it's matte paintings as far as the eye can see, often unusually close to the plane of action to further flatten the world and its inhabitants into abstractions of color and action, usually in immobile shots that mimic the forcible brevity and forthrightness of iconic comic strip storytelling.
Which was, I expect, part of the problem. It's piquant, in a history-repeats-itself sort of way. Eight years earlier, Eisner's predecessor, Ron Miller, had chased another hit past the point of rationality when he decided that Disney's best response to Star Wars was TRON, which took the mandate to make an action-adventure hit and made a bizarre and alienating art film; now the new boss had done exactly the same thing. The distinction is that TRON still might have the better story. TRON at least kept excitedly gesturing at new ideas; Tracy, made by more disciplined or at least more seasoned artists, offers the bare minimum of a narrative so nothing can distract from their art. I've not bothered with a synopsis, because with just the vaguest awareness of the strip's characters, you could practically write it yourself from first principles: Tracy, who has dedicated his life to protecting the city, meets a deadly new challenge when his nemesis Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino under a hump) launches a brutal bid for control of the city's underworld, killing Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and seizing as his prize Lips's singer girlfriend, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna, also under a hump). In between confrontations with Caprice and his chief goons, Flattop (William Forsythe), Itchy (Ed O'Ross), 88 Keys (Mandy Patinkin), and Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), Tracy picks up a nameless street urchin (Charlie Korsmo), who quickly imposes himself upon Tracy as his sidekick, and in between this, Tracy tries to soothe the feelings of his angelically-patient girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), something made maddeningly difficult by Breathless's constant attempts at belligerent seduction every time he tries to get her to turn state's evidence. But Tess will simply have to wait: Tracy is the only thing standing between civilization and chaos, except, perhaps, for the mysterious blank-faced operator who offers Tracy's head to Caprice for a piece of the action, but seems to have even bigger plans of their own.
It's fine—I would be tempted to cut the kid entirely, as a stock situation that has no emotional resonance whatsoever in this telling, though I'd be hesitant because he can be amusing—but it kind of just circles around, going from scene to scene of Tracy violating rights because his enemies are literal subhumans to Tracy almost getting killed to Tracy looking sad at Tess, and doesn't really develop a plot, or at least any plot convolutions, until about the last half hour, whereupon it becomes more compelling at the cost of some coherence, in large part because Beatty seemed constitutionally unable to permit Madonna's character to have a motivation besides wanting to fuck him. (Metatextually, Tracy is modestly rewarding, as a famed womanizer's attempt to grapple with middle age and settling down. There's something to the idea of Beatty having to figuratively annihilate the avatar of his libido to find the true heart—he dated/"dated" Madonna right up until the movie was finished—but this might be more sympathetic, if he hadn't also allegedly nixed Sean Young as Tess because she wouldn't sleep with him.)
Well, one-dimensional character or not, my biggest unorthodox opinion about Tracy is that Madonna is probably giving it its single best performance. It's an unabashedly porny one—some of the lines she has to read, let alone the poses she has to strike, are hard to imagine coming off as anything but unintentional humor from anyone else (they're already hard to imagine fitting into this Disney movie's PG rating!), but, in part because her extrinsic persona was so tied to her sprawling sexuality, she does a stellar job of integrating Breathless's "I'm here to fix the plumbing"-level innuendoes into the architecture of a deliberately stiffly-written pastiche of gangster media from the 30s. Plus, she also gets those musical numbers, and another one of the film's indispensable talents makes itself known in Steven Sondheim's songs, which emphasizes the 30s-ness even more by turning Tracy into a pretty decent crypto-musical. (And like I said, the montages they permit are, bar nothing, Tracy at its best.) In any event, Madonna rules the movie; Kearne is probably second-best-in-show, in that she alone is giving a performance that could theoretically exist in an actual 30s movie. I like Pacino's excess here, yet the degree to which this excess actually brings him joy seems to ebb and flow, and it often defuses Caprice as a threat. As for Beatty, he does solid hardboiled (and looks like a Dick Tracy, which is all this Dick Tracy genuinely requires), but he offers a self-doubt to his (ahem) "emotional" scenes that I'm not certain benefited anybody besides him.
And ultimately it's a would-be buster of blocks that, frankly, doesn't bust. (Even of its wave of Batman neo-pulps, I have more fun with The Shadow.) It's sometimes called a comedy, but it's austere in its camp: while you can appreciate its dialogue and performances, it's laugh-out-loud funny only once, in a very great scene (practically a single shot) that finally explains why Hoffman deigned to be in any movie for about four minutes, including when he's just standing in a background, and why anybody might have hired Hoffman if he was just going to speak gibberish. More oddly, it lacks action—its biggest sequence is a bloodless tommygun slaughter that only proves tommyguns can't be rendered totally uninteresting—or maybe it just seems like that, because everything in the film is so tilted toward the design of the characters and world that everything else truly is an afterthought. Thus, after a fashion, design betrays it, because you get everything Beatty's after almost instantly: by the thirty minute mark, we have seen almost literally every place and even every object in Beatty's world that we'll ever see (and I mean it's very close: there are maybe two set-pieces, a cartoon boiler rigged to explode and some giant gears to which Tess can be tied, that involve any location besides the ones we've already seen in the first half hour). The film is breathtaking at all times, but all that color is purely for color's sake, beautiful but arbitrary, never any guide through a narrative that barely exists, and outside of Tracy's yellow it's not even in a coherent motif.
Yet I'm constantly in danger of overvaluing it: bringing it back to the movie I've decided to make its antithesis, Pretty Woman, it's a strange twist of fate that, indeed, it was Tracy that won in the end. Comic adaptations? That's been the driving force of Disney's business (and cinematic culture) for a decade now, while a hit like Pretty Woman is virtually unimaginable today. Yet it's equally unimaginable that a crazed auteur vehicle like Tracy could ever be released under the Marvel banner, either. Which is not to say "Tracy won, but Disney's heroes lost their soul" or any garbage like that, but that Tracy taught Disney an institutional lesson, that this is the kind of utter deviation to be guarded against. This is a depressing fact, and one that something like Marvel's most recent effort, WandaVision—which, for almost an hour, seemed like it could be this ambitious, even in very similar ways—mercilessly demonstrates. Maybe that's why every time I get too far away from Dick Tracy I start thinking it's a masterpiece, though when I actually watch it I know it's not really even that close.