Friday, June 10, 2011

Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy is one of the best comic book films ever made. But even I have no need for Dick Tracy 2.

Warren Beatty set tongues wagging last night with offhand comments regarding the oft-promised Dick Tracy 2.  After speaking on the subject at an LA Times Hero Complex Film Festival screening of the original 1990 Dick Tracy, the various film sites were treating the off-the-cuff discussion as if the film were already green-lit.  It's not, and it probably never will be.  Warren Beatty has been threatening to make a sequel to his much-debated comic book adaptation ever since the original film became the world's first $100 million-grossing box office disappointment in the summer of 1990.  As you may recall, the Disney film cost around $50 million and was expected to be the PG-rated, Mouse-House answer to Batman.  But the film opened to $21 million (less than R-rated films from that summer such as Total Recall and Die Hard 2) and limped to $100 million.  It became the vocal point for Jeffrey Katzenberg's famous 'expensive and mindless movies are going to kill Hollywood' memo that rocked the industry in 1990 and is all the more relevant today.  It is ironic that the film that once stood as an example of Hollywood's excess remains a finely-aged comic book adventure that plays today more like a bitter and dark adult drama that happens to be shot in primary colors.

Oddly enough, despite its PG-rating and primary colors, it is one of the more adult comic book films ever made. First of all, it’s quite violent, with a large body count and a bit of collateral damage along the way (there has long been rumors of a 134-minute PG-13 director's cut with more graphic violence). It’s a really sad and depressing movie, basically about three people (Tracy, Big Boy, and Breathless) stuck excelling at things that give them no pleasure, but unable to find a way out. I have said this before, but Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice is perhaps my favorite comic book villain, because he is the only one who actually acknowledges the evil he commits and feels bad about it. It’s a different take from the unrepentant evil that usually fills up comic book films which separates him from the other classic guys (the Nicholson/Hamill/Ledger trifecta, Timothy Dalton, Gene Hackman, etc). He doesn’t want to be a villain per-se, and Tracy really doesn’t want to be a work-a-holic cop (and Breathless doesn’t want to be a glorified sex-toy whose only purpose is to look hot and satisfy the lusts of the criminals around her). Pacino creates a flesh-and-blood tragedy in the four-color world, and he makes the movie all the more potent.

 Dick Tracy again. You'll notice something: It's an incredibly sorrowful and sad motion picture, an adult drama about three people who excel at doing the thing that makes them miserable and can't find a way to break free. Dick Tracy is the best cop in the city, but he anguishes because he knows he's not making a dent in crime, and he knows that he's giving up any chance for happiness and a traditional family life with Tess Trueheart. When he stumbles upon The Kid, he immediate realizes that this could be the gateway to the family life he's wanted. Breathless Mahoney excels only at being a piece of ass. Sure she can sing, but no one would care if she didn't look like Madonna. She knows that she's doomed to either wither away alone as the conquest of one lowlife after another, or die at the hands of some random thug who thought her singing was just for him. Dick Tracy is the only man to be remotely kind and respectful to her, and she instantly falls for him, hoping that he may be her ticket out of her sordid life.

At the center of this hell, perhaps the cause, is Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice. He is a criminal by trade. He may enjoy the riches that crime brings, but he takes no joy in the misery he creates. He yearns for respectability but knows that it cannot be attained. When he smacks his singers, abuses Breathless, and murders rivals like Lips Manlis, he knows full well what a bastard he is. He feels only guilt and shame in it. When he accidentally finds himself kidnapping Tess Trueheart at the end of the picture, he finds himself in the company of a woman who is beautiful on the inside and the outside. In a different time, in a better world, she could be his ticket out of his life of crime and depravity. But he knows that is not to be. Of all the villains and monsters and murderers that have graced the comic-book inspired silver screen, Big Boy Caprice is the only one dares to invite pity as well as scorn and/or a twisted idealization. The Joker may make being an amoral monster look like fun. Neville Sinclair makes it look dashing and romantic. But Al Pacino dares to play Big Boy Caprice as a real-world villain in a four-color world. When he looks in the mirror, he only sees shame, despair, and the unforgiving gears of justice that will bring his story to its inevitable end. For him there is no escape, and he damn well knows it.  

Pacino and especially Madonna both do some of their best work and everyone else is in top form. Behind the colors and gee-whiz violence, this is a sad, mournful character study of several people (Tracy, Breathless, Big Boy, 88 Keys) stuck in places they don't want to be, excelling in roles they have little interest in playing, with no plausible way to get out.  21 years later, Dick Tracy 
is still one of the darkest and saddest comic book films ever made.  But despite Hollywood's seemingly unstoppable desire to revive and reboot every franchise ever made, I would be beyond shocked if Beatty ever got his chance to make a sequel.  Hell, Beatty included and killed off pretty much every major Dick Tracy comic villain precisely because he wasn't sure if he'd get another turn at bat.  And quite frankly, I have little interest in seeing Beatty return to this world so many years later.  If Beatty is truly to return to filmmaking, let him try his hand at something new, or at least let him turn the angry political lens of Reds and Bulworth onto today's fractured and borderline insane political dialogue.  I love Dick Tracy and firmly believe it is a masterpiece crime drama and a top-notch comic book adventure.  But I have no desire to see a sequel.  And if I don't, then who does?

Scott Mendelson    


Isaac said...

Good point!

Isaac said...

Good point!

Derrick Kardos said...

great take on a misunderstood film! xx


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