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Pop Art for Pop Art's Sake: 'Dick Tracy'

In the late '80s and early '90s, comics-derived films were rarer, trickier, and less likely to offer career boosts.

Dick Tracy

Director: Warren Beatty
Cast: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Glenne Headley, Charile Korsmo, Dick Van Dyke, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe
Studio: Walt Disney
Distuributor: Disney
Release date: 2012-12-11

In the current cinematic landscape, the sight of big-name actors and directors suiting up for comic-book movie duty isn't just normal; it's practically required. But in the late '80s and early '90s, comics-derived films were rarer, trickier, and less likely to offer career boosts to involved parties. Warren Beatty's 1990 film version of Dick Tracy, now on Blu-ray for the first time, catches the comic book adaptation in a period of awkward growth: after the '80s lull, but well before the regeneration Initiated by the Marvel adaptations of the early '00s.

Dick Tracy was in production before Tim Burton had an enormous hit with Batman in the summer of 1989 -- indeed, principal photography on Beatty's film was finished before Burton's premiered. But Disney, releasing through their Touchstone Pictures imprint, had a full year of post-production and megahype to position the film as a Batman successor. But despite a few flourishes that recall the Burton film – Tracy crashing through glass, a Danny Elfman score, and, most prominently, scene-stealing production design – Beatty's work looks and acts like nothing else of its era.

Chester Gould's original comic strip may be most famous for its parade of grotesque villains – Flattop, Pruneface, The Brow, and so forth – and though Beatty's production team does bring some delightfully ridiculous and pockmarked visages to life, it also takes inspiration from Sunday funnies in general with its bright, often primary colors, elaborate sound stages, and intentionally unrealistic matte paintings. These visual details pop off a high-definition screen in Blu-ray, though some of the close-ups have a video-y fuzz despite the digital restoration. As audacious as this vision is, Beatty's universe feels a little less twisted, a little more (despite the machine guns and occasional gruesome deaths) innocent than Gould's.

This is especially true of Tracy himself; in the comics his iconically square jaw renders him almost as bizarre-looking, in his way, as any of his foes, while the movie lets Beatty's yellow trenchcoat take care of the iconography, sparing him the elaborate (and Oscar-winning) makeup of so many of his costars. His Tracy is a man of action, but also low-key, bordering on diffident. The movie positions his tongue-tied responses to girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley) as a running gag, but even his relationship with the scrappy orphan he adopts, called The Kid (Charlie Korsmo) for most of the movie, stays relatively terse (The Kid does most of the talking and Korsmo gets many of the movie's funniest non-villain lines. "You know, Tracy, for a tough guy you do a lot of pansy things," he says as Tracy brushes his teeth).

Beatty's underplaying probably has to do with the all-star cast he recruited to play bad guys. Al Pacino, hunchbacked and made up and popping like the movie's color palette, plays head mobster Big Boy Caprice, doing a motormouthed cartoon vulgarian the same year he returned to Michael Corleone (he received Oscar nominations for both, a compare/contrast pairing even weirder than the time he was nominated for Glengarry Glenn Ross and Scent of a Woman at the same time), and Dustin Hoffman does an extended cameo as the snitch Mumbles. When Beatty, Pacino, and Hoffman share the screen, however briefly, the movie becomes a spectacle notably different than what Disney executives probably had in mind: some of the biggest stars of seventies cinema getting together in middle age to make one of those new-fangled summer blockbuster types of pictures.

In 1990, of course, all three men were bigger movie stars than they are now – as was Madonna, who plays femme fatale Breathless Mahoney and tries to have fun vamping, but mostly sounds babyish, quavery, and stilted (almost every single line reading feels off). Dick Tracy, with its Oscar-nominated stars, Sondheim-assisted soundtrack, and gorgeous set design, is twice a throwback: nominally to the era of its source material, and more noticeably to an era of blockbusters as major productions, not necessarily thrill rides.

Much of the film is surprisingly fast-paced, cutting between Tracy and his disfigured quarry, but not all that much happens in Dick Tracy. Like the cops in the early Batman movies, Tracy's coworkers don't show much initiative in the areas of detective work -- and even Tracy himself spends more time giving orders and bursting through doors than sleuthing; he's a crime-buster, not a crime-solver. Even that crime-busting takes place in retro-style montages, not major action sequences. The movie is eye-filling and very entertaining, but it has barely the faintest gesture toward a theme. Beatty's compositions, often canted and striking, evoke pulp comics, but little else.

If Beatty had grander ideas in mind with the movie, the Dick Tracy Blu-ray isn't the place to discover them; like its DVD sibling, it has zero special features: not even a trailer from 1990 or a piece about Gould's strip, let alone a commentary from Beatty (who must have more affection for this movie than the home video releases let on; he wrangled back the rights to the character years ago). The movie stands alone, pop art for pop art's sake.


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