Movie review: Dick Tracy (1990)

This week’s movie review came out of nowhere. I stopped by at RwC Eric’s after my last morning shift, just as he and his friends were to pop in Disney’s well hyped but somehow a flop Dick Tracy, an odd movie on several levels. It surprisingly holds up many years later.

Dick Track is a period piece that tried to recapture what people thought a comic book (or, in this case, comic strip) adventure might be, a year after Tim Burton’s Batman. I wondered while watching how much of Batman might’ve been an influence on Dick Tracy. I’m sure it helped move the production along, as DT was in development as director & star Warren Beatty’s pet project for a few years at that point. Batman even comes off as a bit anachronistic, where everyone in Gotham is decked out in 40’s style clothing. But where Batman was dark in theme and set design, Dick Tracy had a vibrant visual style. And yes, a lot of that is the costuming. But we were all enamored by another piece: the amazing matte paintings these characters live in.

It’s also an hour and forty or so minutes long, but thankfully doesn’t feel like it. For something that probably had a lot of studio meddling, and with pressure to sell toys and merchandise like Batman did (which Dick Tracy didn’t), there’s not a lot that lags. That’s not to say that things make sense. Fans of 80’s cartoons like myself are probably used to stories having action beats with no real follow up. This is a movie where Dick Tracy is a detective of the two fisted kind, so questioning perps is pretty limited as asides in montages. There’s one scene where Dick Tracy (played by the Beatty) climbs up a building to listen in on a mobster meeting, and when one of the mobsters leaves the meeting only to be blown up in his car, Tracy jumps onto a lightpost, and then hops on the roof of his police car. Why? He’s a cop, a MURDER just happened. Why are you the one driving away? Cordon that area off already and start asking questions.

There were big names cast, with Madonna being one of the most famous. The movie was also hyped for its level of cameos – you have to scrape off the makeup to know who they might be, though Dustin Hoffman is easily recognizable. Are these cameos good? Does it matter? The whole show is stolen by Al Pacino, covered in facial prosthetics (and giant beige gloves to exaggerate his hands). It’s an enjoyable over-the-top performance, whereas with Beatty, what connects us with Tracy beyond him being the title character? It’s not like we don’t know who he is going in, I guess. Other odd moments are long takes on Beatty as nothing happens. Some of that is funny, such as part of a montage when he’s just staring at a phone. But it’s a tribute to comic (strips), why not more odd close up angles and quicker cuts to highlight…anything?

That’s the other odd feel of the movie: when watching the ‘action’ scene I described above (of Tracy jumping off the building on to a pole onto a police car…), the whole thing feels like they live in a studio backlot. What offsets any of that is, as also mentioned above, the brilliant matte paintings.

The movie was deemed a flop, though looking at the box office total compared to its filming budget, it doesn’t look that way. It’s not mentioned along with other comic book movies. There was a period where the limitations of special effects, or what studios were willing to spend on these movies, meant adopting series that were period pieces (The Phantom, The Shadow, The Rocketeer) or budgets spent on the costume and then little else (the direct to video Captain America movies, The Punisher, the unreleased Fantastic Four movie). Then there’s the odd early experimentation of CGI that hadn’t aged remotely well (Spawn) and the Batman series that breathed new life into the idea that comics could translate into blockbuster film that just got more ridiculous to the point of embarrassment.

I think it flopped because they must have spent a fortune on promotions: just relentless tie ins with fast food and with toys no one really wanted. I didn’t see the movie until much later but I personally loved reading comic strips every day and that included Dick Tracy. When I did see the movie a few years later, I remembered some of the visuals but was indifferent to the characters. On this rewatch, we all agreed: the matte paintings were fabulous. So were some of Madonna’s outfits. But, those paintings! There’s little else to say other than it’s not an interminable hour forty five, and you’ll dig those visuals once the camera pans out of the backlot into a comic strip city come to life.

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