Set in crime-riddled 30s Chicago, where gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) seems to rule the city, one brave team of lawmen decide to take the fight to Capone. Straight-arrow, ambitious treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) learns from his department’s tax attorney (Charles Martin Smith) that Capone can be taken to court for tax evasion! Sean Connery plays Malone, the tough, Italian-hating veteran Irish copper who acts as mentor and comrade-in-arms to Ness, along with rookie sharpshooter George Stone (Andy Garcia). Billy Drago plays Capone’s slithery hired gun Frank Nitti, whilst Patricia Clarkson has an early role as Ness’ supportive wife.
The one high point in the career of director Brian De Palma (“Scarface” and “Dressed to Kill” probably have their fair share of champions I suppose), and probably the best film Kevin Costner has thus far made, this 1987 cops vs. gangsters movie is one of the most entertaining motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Others seem to disagree but I’d also suggest that the film holds up wonderfully well nearly thirty years later. The film fires on all cylinders; Direction, screenplay, design, performances, score composition, etc.
It’s master composer Ennio Morricone who gets us off to a perfect, exciting start with one of the best main themes in cinematic history. It’s exciting stuff that you won’t get out of your head for weeks, even evoking Morricone’s previous work on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” with the use of harmonica. Oddly, it’s Morricone who most comes under fire these days from people who find his music score unoriginal and anachronistic. Frankly…nope, I got nothing. I can’t even begin to understand the logic. Yes there are modern drum beats in the score for what is meant to be a Prohibition-era story, but for some reason it has never struck me as incongruous or anachronistic. Mainly because it’s just fucking brilliant. It’s an energetic, weird, and eclectic score that I truly count as one of the best of all-time, from a man who has delivered several other best scores of all-time.
The look of the film is equally sensational, with expert Giorgio Armani costuming, outstanding production design, and above all else, dynamic filmmaking from director De Palma and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (“Rumble Fish”, De Palma’s pathetic “Body Double”). In terms of shot composition, this film is full of great angles, camera movements, etc. If this film weren’t storyboarded down to the finest detail, I’d be shocked. The film’s bravura moment from a purely cinematic point of view is obviously De Palma’s tribute to the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence from the landmark “Battleship Potemkin”. De Palma has earned my ire over the years for being a plagiaristic, Hitchcock wannabe hack, but here’s the one time when paying homage (this time to Sergei Eisenstein, rather than Alfred Hitchcock) came off for him. The reason why it’s such a brilliant scene is because it’s not just De Palma wanking over cinematic history. Those who know the reference get it, those who don’t can still enjoy a fantastically shot and edited set piece that still manages to fit seamlessly into the story and the fabric of the film. It’s masterful.
The film boasts an impressive cast, with several actors exhibiting their finest-ever work (Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Billy Drago, and Richard Bradford), as well as two top stars offering up excellent displays of show-boating (Robert De Niro, Sean Connery) that add, rather than distract from the film. Kevin Costner has always had a Gary Cooper/Jimmy Stewart/Gregory Peck ‘old school, decent man’ hero vibe about him and it serves him perfectly in the role of crusading Chicago cop Eliot Ness. I don’t know why people so underrate his work here, it’s spot-on as the upright, unbending lawman who also has the task of keeping his family safe while he’s crusading against the likes of Al Capone. Costner is an easy sell as the relatable, virtuous hero of the story, who is just shy of wearing a cape, because Costner grounds him in reality as a family man and good, honest lawman at a time and place when crime was running rampant. Sean Connery won his only Oscar for his colourful supporting turn as a tough, possibly racist, but honest Irish copper. Sure, he’s the only Irish cop in cinematic history to have a Scottish accent, but Connery gets almost all of the good lines in the screenplay by David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross”). His final scene is one that, although a powerful dramatic scene, is nonetheless hilariously quotable. Personally I prefer his work in “The Hill”, “The Offence”, and “Robin and Marian”, but this is definitely Connery’s best film. Robert De Niro isn’t exactly subtle here, but playing gangster Al Capone, showboating is exactly what is required, and boy does De Niro make his every scene (surprisingly few) count. In a role originally meant for Bob Hoskins, De Niro is clearly the right casting choice as the loudmouth, short-tempered, baseball bat-wielding bully-boy. Although not normally a physically imposing-looking man off-screen, De Niro somehow manages to scare the shit out of you on screen in films like “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, and to a certain extent the overblown remake of “Cape Fear”. He certainly has an intimidating presence here, and I doubt Bob Hoskins would’ve come anywhere near as close as De Niro in the role. He simply is Capone, with a little 30s-era Edward G. Robinson thrown in for good measure.
In smaller roles, Richard Bradford, and especially Charles Martin and Billy Drago are also impressive. Bradford is a veteran player of authority figures and has one of his most visible roles here as a fellow Irish copper who warns Connery not to go down the path of trying to clean the city up. Smith brings some comic relief as the Treasury accountant who comes up with the brilliant idea of targeting Capone for tax evasion. In years past, it’s the kind of role that would’ve gone to Elisha Cook Jr. If you don’t feel kicked in the guts by his final moment on screen, what the fuck is wrong with you? Veteran B-grade action movie henchman Billy Drago has easily his most high-profile role here as Capone hired assassin Frank Nitti, AKA The Man in White (for those of you who grew up with the seriously impossible C64 computer game). In his first scene and just a few words, Drago oozes snaky evil in a vivid, scene-stealing turn (And if you don’t believe Mr. Drago’s appearance here was the inspiration for Michael Jackson’s all-time great music video ‘Smooth Criminal’, well Drago did later appear in a Jackson video, so come on, that’s too much of a coincidence!). Also worth noting is the cameo by famed acting teacher Del Close as a truly slimy, bribe-offering alderman.
This really is one of the great American stories, and certainly one of the great true crime stories (albeit given the ‘Hollywood’ treatment if you know what I mean. Switching the juries? Really?) as a top gangster is taken down by a top cop…for failing to pay his taxes! You couldn’t make it up. If there’s any flaw to the film, for me it’s the Canadian border scene. Every time I see the film, I can’t work out what it is, but the scene just doesn’t work for me. It seems out of place. Perhaps it’s the wide open plains. Maybe it’s the mixture of gangster epic and John Ford western vibe. It’s definitely partly due to the awful actor (Robert Swan) playing the leader of the Mounties. It’s the film’s one imperfection, even if the scene contains Smith’s best moment in the film and one of Connery’s best lines: ‘Enough of this running shit!’.
A masterful blend of top-notch acting and showy filmmaking, at the end of the day, this is also just a great yarn. One of the most entertaining films you’re ever likely to come across, and proof that just about any director can hit it out of the park at least once in their career.