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Vault: 'Dick Tracy' (1990) Dir. Warren Beatty

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, Seymour Cassel, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Ed O'Ross, Mandy Patinkin, R. G. Armstrong and Dick Van Dyke


The first and only big-screen outing for the mustard-yellow trench-coated 1930s comic-book Detective created by Chester Gould really broke new ground for comic-book adaptations...

1938. Chicago. Mob boss “Big Boy” Caprice (Pacino) enlists rival gangs to join his growing empire, enforced by hired goons Flattop (Forsythe), Itchy (O’Ross) and Mumbles (Hoffman). After witnessing a hit, young street urchin known as The Kid (Korsmo) is taken into protective custody by Detective Dick Tracy (Beatty) and his long-term girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Headly).

Caprice takes over the Club Ritz and sultry singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). Operating from the club, Caprice starts to form an plan to take over the city with corrupt officials and tough mobsters at his disposal.

It becomes clear that Tracy is the only man with the will and bravery to go after Caprice, regardless of the danger to his life. But when the danger comes close to home and threatens Tess and The Kid, Tracy risks it all to save them and put Caprice out of business forever...

This Academy Award winning comic-book movie is right up there with the pulpy best. It’s not good strong emotional depth or heavy character development like, in comparison, ‘Batman’, another comic adaptation which came a year before, but there’s no denying it looks stunning and faithful to the source material more than most.

From the matte-painted enhanced locations, vibrant comic-book primary coloured trenchcoat, cars and buildings and the remarkable costume and make-up for the “rogues gallery” of villains, Warren Beatty really gives us a totally unique and original gangster film that blends action, comedy and thriller into one rollercoaster ride of chases, shoot-outs and explosive action like the Saturday morning serials or B-movie adventures.

There has never been a comic-book movie adaptation since 'Dick Tracy' that has been able to create such a stunning, comic-strip world without the aid of CGI.

As most of the cast hide under prosthetics like Al Pacino as the wonderfully extravagantly slimy mob-boss “Big Boy” Caprice, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles and various others to help enhance their comic-book characters, it’s really enjoyable to watch the good vs evil battles across the city that play out with a fitting soundtrack by Danny Elfman, and lots of smashes, crashes and crunches. Madonna also plays a decent role as the “femme fatale” of the piece, and helps provide a number of era-fitting songs to accompany the action and drama on screen. 

It’s also very stylish with the defining colours worn by each character, adding to that comic-book feel that very few films today are brave enough to do (the most recent I can think of being ‘Sin City’ to be as faithful to source material as this). Reds, yellows, blues, greens, oranges – all bold and vibrant colours that look great and really bring the city to life and make each character that little more extravagant with their individual look and persona.

Glenne Headly and Charlie Korsmo manage to keep things grounded away from the glitz and glamour of the mob-war as Tracy’s love interest and adoptive orphan who both have tender performances in their own way, adding a little more to Tracy than just bullets and a badge. Headly is perfect in this era, her soft-spoken and plain, pretty face evoking the sweet moll of the 30s. Beatty also plays Tracy with that steely resolve that we imagine from a square-jawed, incorruptible police detective who stands tall against evil in the comics, and here on screen he is just as effective, a mature role but one who certainly talks the talk and walks the walk, working well against Headly and Korsmo as that prospective family man, but also against Pacino and the mob as a tough talking, fist-fighting cop.

It’s a shame a sequel was tarnished by the on-going legal issues that has only just been resolved now, and it’s sad to think the style, fun and simplicity of ‘Dick Tracy’ probably would go un-noticed in this loud CGI fuelled era of action heroes.

Tracy is an old-fashioned cop in an old-fashioned world, and the film-making all reflect that era which I would love to see return to cinema. But after films like ‘Gangster Squad’ that prove the gangster genre has such promise but never manages to ignite audience interest, I doubt Dick Tracy would survive, which is a shame.

This is a memorable and very enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment that is a market leading comic-book adaptation when you look at the creativity evident in everything from the main titles to the end credits.

'Dick Tracy' is a Touchstone Pictures / Silver Screen Partners IV production

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