Some movies define their times; some are merely born of them. In the right hands, the latter can be as inspired as the former. Warren Beatty had been trying to get a film version of Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy made since the ’70s, but chances are that any Dick Tracy he might’ve made in 1975 would’ve turned out very different from the one released in 1990. The version Beatty ended up directing is a movie very much of its era: a loud, cartoony summer blockbuster that probably wouldn’t have been possible without the success of the previous two summer’s smashes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Batman. And yet Beatty’s Dick Tracy is no work-for-hire cash-in. It’s an accomplished stylistic exercise, reconsidering the pop culture of the ’30s through the perspective of the late 20th century. And, in retrospect, it’s a more personal film than it originally seemed, dealing with the reluctant maturation of an icon.
Beatty stars as Dick Tracy, a straight-arrow, no-guff police detective combating a colorful gallery of rogues, who are in the process of organizing under the direction of a mug named Big Boy (played by Al Pacino). Big Boy’s also getting into show business, having taken over a club where the star attraction is a blonde vamp named Breathless Mahoney (played by Madonna, Beatty’s girlfriend at the time). The distractions of Big Boy’s plans and Breathless’ seductions keep Tracy from paying the proper attention to his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), who’s ready to get married and needs Tracy’s help to raise a parentless ragamuffin called “The Kid.” Working from a script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.—reportedly re-written by many hands—Beatty goes for broad strokes, limiting the color palette for the sets, costumes, and performances. The aim here is a pastiche of the Sunday funnies and old Hollywood, but with very little winking. Like the old-fashioned Stephen Sondheim songs on the soundtrack, Beatty’s Dick Tracy is self-consciously corny yet sincere.
Fans of the Gould comic strip have taken issue over the years with the way that Beatty forces the source material into a shape that doesn’t wholly honor the original—aside from the look of the villains, who are properly grotesque. But this is the way comics-derived movies were at the time (even the ones that aimed to be somewhat serious), and besides, Beatty had more on his mind than just adapting Gould. Dick Tracy has pop-art elements, imaginatively conceived montages, and a riff on crime-as-business that’s as pointed as the Godfather movies, if more family-friendly. And in giving Madonna the chance to play her best movie role—an imitation of all the pop star’s favorite femmes fatale—he gives the hero a real choice between a virtuous life with Tess and something more like how the actual Warren Beatty was known to live. Is it a coincidence that shortly after wrapping Dick Tracy, Beatty met Annette Bening, got married, and became a father? Probably so. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some real personal struggle embedded in this market-driven Disney tentpole.
Key features: Zip.