Dick Tracy June 15, 2015
Maximalist in its neon pleasures and a visual dream in its uncompromising vision, Dick Tracy is a comic book adaptation of unusual ambition. Rather than simply take stock characters and infamous plotlines from the pages of the strip and pray that an impression will be made by way of the silver screen, it attempts to fully realize every ocular atomic bomb the original frames shook the world with during its prime years. Prosthetics uglify the faces of villains, putting their tarnished psyches in full view; the cityscape, especially at night, glows with gaudy neon while advertisements and apartment lights act as pulp accents. The film is stunning, so photographically and stylistically original that I dare you not to stare at the lusty fantasy of it all without some sort of flabbergasted reaction.
Upon release in 1990, Dick Tracy was surrounded by a hailstorm of pervasive media coverage, which heightened expectations to levels no film could ever match. Universal hoped it would be the next Batman, ultimately spending over $100 million on production, marketing, and promotion. Madonna, the most famous woman in the world at the time, decided to release a concept album based on the character she plays in the film, titled I’m Breathless (which features pop archetype “Vogue”). So when Dick Tracy turned out to be an uncontrollably stylish foray into comic book lure, most were turned off by its spirited approach. They wanted a fun blockbuster but got a self-serious museum of noir-on-acid tropes.
Twenty-five years later, without the noise of Universal’s promotional moshing and the combination of the star power of Madonna and Warren Beatty, Dick Tracy isn’t just an underrated blockbuster — it is also an artistic triumph, so completely intransigent in its determination to mimic the look and tone of its source that it finishes thrilling in its disregard for conformity. Whether you like it or not, it is impossible to completely forget. Its images leave an imprint on the brain like Sin City or Waking Life, its attitude joyously foolhardy in its every step.
Beatty portrays the titular protagonist with stoic morality — he is a detective without any other interests besides making the world a better place. Persnickety cynicism is left at the door. A hero of capable tenacity, he spends his days fighting crime, his nights with longtime sweetheart Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and their may-as-well-be-adopted-son Kid (Charlie Korsmo). But Tracy’s life is far from routine. Currently stalking the streets of the city are mob leader Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) and his many associates. They want to become crime gods, but Tracy, his usual heroic self, makes it nearly impossible for such dreamy successes to become reality. Using lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) as a seductive pawn, the thugs plan to off him quickly and without evidence. But Tracy isn’t one to wither away in the face of temptation.
Dick Tracy’s story is fairly standard, but so are the stories of all comic books. Like every work of pulp fiction, clichés are wrapped up so neatly in adventuresome style that we find ourselves lost in the good cop/bad cop dynamic, despite the fact that we’ve seen it all before. The only way clichés can work is if they exist in their own separate universe. There isn’t anything special about a car chase set in a blasé, modern-day San Francisco, but when the act occurs in a wasteland of unwavering vision (a la Mad Max: Fury Road), everything becomes a surprise. Thanks to Beatty’s decision to film Dick Tracy in pop-arted, artifice obsessed design, anything resembling a dime-a-dozen trope becomes new again.
I could go on and on lauding Dick Tracy’s style, but that would be an injustice to the actors. To survive in a film like this, a performer must put on a brave face and be willing to transform themselves into a caricature — here, the cast goes above and beyond, and that’s an immensely difficult thing to do. As wooden (and too old for the part) as Beatty is, he fits the mold of Tracy quite well with his passive masculinity and unwillingness to go against his moral compass. But the film belongs to Pacino and Madonna, who don’t walk but run with their parts, so infatuated with their roles that they fly from camp territory to convincingly authentic lands. As Big Boy Caprice, Pacino is loud, melodramatic, and fittingly moody; Madonna, in an impressive Marilyn impression, whispers her way through a role that requires her to do what she does best: sing and take on a compelling persona.
In terms of style, Dick Tracy is a work of originality. In temperament, it reminds us why comic books have remained such a staple in popular culture; despite their artificial touch and exaggerated characters and settings, there is truth to be found amidst all the fakery. Its extremism has the potential to be divisive. But even its biggest detractors can’t deny how visionary Beatty’s direction is. A