By 1987, Brian De Palma had toiled for two decades in the lucrative (but critically derided) "ghetto" of low-and mid-budget genre filmmaking -- directing such films as 'Sisters,' 'Dressed to Kill,' 'Blow Out' and 'Scarface.' But while many of his films generated their fair share of attention, none were particularly profitable by Hollywood standards, and most were widely derided by critics as being far-too-derivative of Alfred Hitchcock.
So when Paramount announced it had signed De Palma to helm 'The Untouchables,' the news was met with more than a few raised eyebrows -- not only was De Palma an unproven choice for such a big-budgeted epic, but the political cynicism of his earlier works ('Blow Out' and 'Scarface' being prime examples) seemed out of whack with this most American of stories, set to be produced at the height of Reagan-era patriotism.
But defying all expectations, 'The Untouchables' turned out to be the director's first sure-fire crowd-pleaser, and the film would ultimately catapult him to the ranks of other bankable, A-list directors. As a fan of De Palma's darker, less commercial movies, I've always regarded 'The Untouchables' with some disdain, because (for me) it represents a softening of the director's sensibilities. Still, it's hard not to be left highly entertained by his Barnum & Bailey-esque cinematic showmanship in this film.
The story is likely familiar to most. Dectective Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is the new sheriff in town, brought in to clean up the seedier element of prohibition-era Chicago. Of course, only an arrow as straight as Ness would be courageous (or naive) enough to eventually pick notorious crime lord Al Capone (Robert De Niro) as his main target, but while the odds may be stacked against him, Ness has the American Way of law and order on his side. He also wisely enlists two veteran crime-stoppers as his right-hand men, Jim Malone (Sean Connery) and George Stone (Andy Garcia), plus the somewhat bumbling (but endearing) Agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). Needlesstosay, it will be a bloody battle between good and evil, but never underestimate the men riding in on the white horse.
While it's easy to draw visual parallels between 'The Untouchables' and other De Palma films, the most surprising departure for the director in this film is the tone he chooses to take -- rather than challenging the idealism of his characters (or of his story), for the first time in his career, he pumps it up to such heightened excess that there may as well be an American flag waving in the background of every scene.
Borrowing a page from the Francis Ford Coppola 'Godfather' playbook, De Palma also frequently infuses his scenes with melodramatic visual and aural excess. Connery's big, Oscar-winning exit as Malone is the kissing cousin of the original 'Godfather's climatic orgy of bloodshed and opera, while 'The Untouchables' piece de resistance -- the duel between Ness and Capone's minions at Union Station -- was famously patterned after the "Odessa Steps" sequence in 'The Battleship Potemkin.' While such filmmaking prowess places this film a million miles away from the original 1959 TV series "the Untouchables," a core sense of the show's '50s values remains, and perhaps that's why the big-budget movie version so resonated with '80s audiences.
Two decades on, 'The Untouchables' remains a great thrill ride. Though I find De Palma's filming techniques in the film a bit too showy at times -- they rarely serve the narrative, only themselves -- the script by David Mamet is literate and sharp as a tack. And while the film is "based" on Ness's own autobiography, the way it's written, shot and acted (particularly by Costner), makes it idealized, rosy and nostalgic. Extremely rare for a mob picture, 'The Untouchables' leaves the audience feeling hopeful and uplifted by a story that is riddled with bullets and brutal killings. Though I remain slighly uncomfortable seeing a hardcore crime story turned into nostalgic pastiche, I can't deny that it works, and that 'The Untouchables' remains great, great fun.
'The Untouchables' is the latest addition to Paramount's growing library of next-gen catalog titles, and as has been typical of the studio, it follows a recent standard-def remaster. 'The Untouchables' hit DVD back in 2003 as a souped-up two-disc special edition, and this HD DVD version appears to be minted from the same high-def master made for that release.
Holding up very well next to other recent Paramount remastered releases such as 'The Warriors' and 'Trading Places,' this 1080p/VC-1 encode (AVC MPEG-4 on the Blu-ray) looks pretty spiffy. The master is in very nice shape, and nearly pristine (only some very minor bits of dirt are visible, plus slight grain typical of the period). Blacks and contrast are a clear improvement over previous video versions, even the standard-def DVD re-issue, which was already strong. Detail similarly offers more readily visible fine textures, and the film's generally bright visual style lends itself to excellent depth and clarity. Colors are also more vibrant than the DVD, and though some of the deepest reds and darker interiors may stumble every so with a bit of fuzziness, in general saturation is very vivid.
What ultimately keeps this transfer from rating even more highly is that it has clearly been tweaked, and suffers from some edge enhancement as a result. Any film from 1987 is likely to be naturally softer than a modern transfer, but unfortunately, that seems to be a no-no these days when it comes to remaster catalog titles. There are consistent edge halos visible, as well as shimmering. Certainly, 'The Untouchables' looks wonderfully sharp throughout, but the cost is an artificial cast. Still, this is a four-star transfer, so caveats aside it's likely most fans will be more than pleased.
This HD DVD edition of 'The Untouchables' features two audio tracks -- the Dolby Digital Surround EX remaster from the 2003 two-disc DVD, plus an unannounced DTS-HD High-Resolution 6.1 Surround track (matrixed, not discrete). In atypical Paramount fashion, the bitrates on the HD DVD and the Blu-ray DTS tracks actually match this time at 1.5mbps (although the Dolby Digital on the Blu-ray still gets demoted to 640kbps, versus 1.5mbps for this HD DVD).
The mix is quite lively for its vintage, which allows for the difference between the DTS and Dolby EX tracks to be more noticeable than it would be on other older catalogue titles. The matrixed-in extra surround channel, combined with more dynamic sound design, leaves the DTS the clear winner over the Dolby EX mix.
Less gimmicky and obvious than most tracks of its era, 'The Untouchables' was state-of-the-art in 1987. Granted, surrounds are only sporadically engaged for action, but when they do kick in they're quite effective. The most obvious example is the Union Station sequence, which features some relly nice use of discrete effects. It is not as continually engaging as a modernaction blockbuster, but pans are fairly seamless between rear channels, and there is a nice sense of tonal realism to the sounds.
The excellent score by Ennio Morricone is wonderfully bled to the rears, and its swelling strings and deep percussive are certainly a highlight of this track. Dynamic range is impressive for a 1987 picture -- the explosion that anchors the first act features surprisingly hefty low bass, and similarly the rest of the also frequency range has a more open and spacious quality than most tracks of its era, with clean dialogue and a warm, airy feel to the high-end.
Long one of Paramount's most highly-requested titles to receive the Special Edition treatment on standard-def DVD, the studio finally gave fans what they wanted in 2004 with a well-received Special Collector's Edition. Paramount has ported over all those extras to the high-def versions, although purely in terms of quantity, the set is limited.
Alongside Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, Brian De Palma is one of a handful of well-known directors who refuse to record audio commentaries -- hence, there is no such track included on this disc. Instead, longtime De Palma documentarian Laurent Bouzereau (who seems to do about 75 percent of all DVD supplements these days) has crafted another of his reverential, very classy full-docs on the making of 'The Untouchables.'
Running nearly 60 minutes, the doc is broken into four main parts. "The Script, The Cast" breaks down the film's conception and casting, and includes (relatively) new interviews with De Palma and producer Art Linson. Interesting tidbits included here are the fact that Robert De Niro was not the actor originally cast in his now-famous role of Al Capone, while Sean Connery surprisingly took some enticing to take the part that eventually won him an Oscar. "Production Stories" turns out to be focused primarily on the work of Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, who also contributes a new chat. Though it's hard to imagine the film now as being in anything but vivid color, we learn in this peice that originally he wanted shoot the movie in black and white.
Next is "Reinventing The Genre," which may be the most interesting section. The bravura deaths of Connery and Charles Martin Smith are dissected, as is the setpiece Union Station sequence. But true fans will be most excited to hear about the deleted scenes cut from the movie (although sadly not presented as a stand-alone supplement), including a sequence with the four leads in a Canadian border raid, plus an alternate ending involving Capone. Lastly, "The Classic" is a tribute to the score by Ennio Morricone. The composer needs no introduction, and his work on 'The Untouchables' is undoubtedly a modern classic.
While all of the above featurettes excel in terms of presentation, with a well-paced balance of new interviews, film clips and rare production and still material, unfortunately, the number of participants is crippingly limited. Aside from De Palma, Linson and Burum, there are no other members of the main cast and crew present -- De Niro, Connery, Smith, Andy Garcia and Kevin Costner all only appear in old interview clips and footage. Their presence is sorely, sorely missed, making this set feels more like an extended director interview than a full-fledged documentary.
Rounding out this package is a lone vintage 1987 featurette, titled appropriately enough "Original Featurette: The Men." This dated 8-minute piece interviews all the main cast, including Costner, Connery and Garcia. Unfortunately, it was shot before the movie came out so is of interest only as a historical artifact.
Note that all of the above content is presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only. The only full HD extra on the disc is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which is presented as a 1080p/VC-1 encode.
'The Untouchables' holds up as a very commercial, very entertaining mob picture, and this HD DVD release is a solid catalog effort from Paramount. Though I don't think the transfer provides as impressive an upgrade as recent studio titles like 'The Warriors' or 'Trading Places,' there is the surprise inclusion of a DTS 6.1 soundtrack, plus a nice batch of recycled making-of featurettes that are quite strong. 'The Untouchables' may not a top-tier HD DVD catalog release, but fans of the film should still be pleased with this one.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.