Review: Dick Tracy

Directed by: Warren Beatty
Category: Cult Classics

Dick Tracy has always been a film I've always really enjoyed. Though to be honest I haven't seen it since it came out back in 1990. I do remember that I did in fact like it, but for whatever reason never felt compelled to catch it again until now. I think I wanted to see if my memories of it still held true, that it was a beautifully photographed film with catchy musical numbers and a good amount of action.

Make no mistake, the design of it alone is worth the trip. The film explodes in a palette of only 7 colors taken directly from the original comic strip and transports you into this world of vibrant reds and yellows, machine guns and some of the craziest looking gangsters and villains you've ever seen.
But there are some people that don't like it for that reason alone, feeling the film looks too cartoony and weird. But not me. Here Warren Beatty was paying homage to an old comic strip and literally brought that comic strip to life. And it was a tough call, because Dick Tracy could easily have gone either way. I can totally see Dick Tracy as a hard-edged violent and bloody detective film if say someone like Martin Scorsese, who was actually going to direct it at one time, would have made it. But then put it in the hands of someone like John Landis, another potential at one time, and you would have had a much tamer and less visually appealing film. I'm not knocking Landis, because the guy has given us some truly great treasures, but around the time Dick Tracy would have been his next flick, he was mostly rolling out comedies like Spies Like Us, The Three Amigos and Coming to America. But I digress. Walter Hill was also in the running to direct, and in all honesty, I think going the hard-boiled or hard-edged route would be genius with this character with Hill directing and Clint Eastwood starring. That would have been a bloody brilliant collaboration. And on a plus, Eastwood even looks like Dick Tracy, or at least he did in the late 80's when this thing was finally getting off the ground. That's the Dick Tracy film I would have loved to see, but that's just me.

So 21 years later my feelings are that it's a technical and visual marvel, but unfortunately the script simply falls flat due to just having way too many characters in the mix (I read an article that said Beatty intentionally put as many characters from the strips in as he feared there would never be a sequel), confusing subplots involving double-crossings and back-stabbings that even I found difficult trying to keep track of and the whole "kid" thing. Yea, I know this film was marketed for kids so obviously they're going to have a kid in the movie, but man did it slow the movie down every time he showed up. I suppose they felt the need to humanize Tracy by showing him interact with a kid, but it would have much cooler to see a film about Dick Tracy going after hoodlums and beating them to a pulp rather than see him trying to get along with an orphan kid actually named "kid" . But that's just me.

I have to hand it to Warren Beatty though, the guy put his heart and soul into this and for lack of a better word it's fucking brilliant. When a film looks and feels this impressive I can usually forgive the too many characters thing and the dragging storyline because it's so impressive to watch. In the end I like the fact that he went with the pulp, overstylized and even slightly campy look and feel because it's done so incredibly well here. I don't know what other movie you could get away with doing it like that, but here it works perfectly. The design, sets, effects, backgrounds, costume design and character designs are just fascinating. It does tend to drag a bit here and there, but for the most part Beatty keeps the pace moving nicely. The only time it ever really slows down to a crawl is when Breathless Mahony comes into the picture and it's always awkward because you wonder how far they're going to go with there relationship. Madonna was an alright choice I suppose, but they easily could and should have gotten someone better for the role. But the fact that she could actually sing and maybe the fact that she was the queen of pop or whatever you wanna call it at the time probably helped in the long run. So yea, these scenes with Tracy and Breathless were a little much because she's usually half naked in most of her scenes and the constant teasing and sexual tension between them is pretty distracting. Especially if you're watching it with a kid in the room. I don't know, in the end it all seemed unnecessary and I didn't really care for it.

Breathless Mahoney aside, the casting of this film is pretty spectacular. There are so many names in here, even under all that makeup, that it's at times overwhelming. You find yourself playing puzzles with your brain when you see Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, Dick Van Dyke, William Forsythe, Ed O'Ross, Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, Paul Sorvino, R.G. Armstrong, Henry Silva and James Caan just to name a few and try playing the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" game because you can go on forever. And let's be honest, Al Pacino "owns" this movie. It's really only whenever he shows up that the film really kicks into gear because Pacino exudes such an over the top hyper kinetic performance that it kind of saves the film from ever really being boring when there's not some action set piece going on, which unfortunately for a film called Dick Tracy, there just aren't enough of.

I've never been one for musicals, I usually can't stand them, but I'll admit that the 5 original numbers by Stephen Sondheim are pretty damn catchy. And speaking of music, though I usually love Danny Elfman's music, especially during this time period when he was doing stuff like Batman, Darkman, Nightbreed and Edward Scissorhands, here it just seems like a rehash of discarded Batman music. And I don't want to be harsh cuz I love the guy, but it really does sound like they just took some music from Batman and inserted it here at times. Even my kid kept saying "That's the music from Batman right?". 'nuff said.

The aftermath:
Dick Tracy, in the end, was not a financial success. After running extensively over-budget and factoring in marketing and promotion, Dick Tracy ended up costing about $100 million to produce and only making $103 million in the U.S., with the studio scrapping whatever plans there were for a sequel after it's poor performance. Critically, the reviews were mixed with critics being divided by feeling that the film was campy and fun, while others felt while it was visually and technically triumphant, the story and pace was a bore at times. Currently Dick Tracy holds a 65% rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, not bad considering.

Though he's a multiple Oscar nominee for films like Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Reds, Heavens Can Wait, Bugsy and Bulworth, and even winning Best Director for Reds in 1981, Dick Tracy will be his opus, his crowning achievement. Even still in interviews today Dick Tracy is the most brought up topic. He will always be known for Dick Tracy more than any other picture in his filmography, and rightly so. Dick Tracy is such a visually impressive film where every single shot was meticulously designed and executed that you can't help but be amazed. Currently there is a Blu-ray release in the works which Beatty himself is supervising. And since it's release on DVD in the states in 2002, there has been talk of a supposed "directors cut" with about 10 minutes of extra footage. I hope that it's included in the Blu-ray release because the DVD we've been stuck with is as bare-bones as you can possibly get. Warren Beatty is said to be a perfectionist though, and since Dick Tracy is his pride and joy, who knows how long it will take till we get that Blu-ray release.

This was a fun film to watch, bringing back a flood of memories of when I first saw it and of the time when it was being released. It drags here and there and Madonna and the kid were more distractions than anything, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching Dick Tracy again.


  1. I also haven't seen this since 1990. (That year was stuffed with far better blockbusters.) Excess of the worst kind IMO. Warren Beatty was a pain in the ass to the production crew too.

    1. It's definitely not for everyone. lol. But I appreciate the work and passion that went into this. And you can't deny Beatty's passion for this particular project. Just the overall look and design of it all is impressive to me. Of course the story could have been better and it could have flowed better too, but it wasn't bad. I've heard Beatty can be a difficult man to work with. I wonder if that plays into why a sequel was never made?