Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 8, 2013)
After the enormous success of 1989ís Batman, a slew of comic book hero films became inevitable. Actually, we never got the onslaught I expected back then, but more than a few popped onto screens - and most were promptly forgotten.
The first major post-Batman release came out for the summer of 1990. Touted as the big blockbuster of that season, Warren Beattyís take on Dick Tracy had a lot going for it. The movie featured Beatty himself in the title role as well as many famous names as villains. Al Pacino took on the main baddie, and Dustin Hoffman provided a semi-cameo as accomplice Mumbles. Others like James Caan and Paul Sorvino also appear, and youíre likely to recognize many other minor participants along the way; heck, we even briefly see Kathy Bates right before Misery made her famous.
The movie even boasted Madonna as the femme fatale, and she sure did her best to promote the flick. She put out an album called Iím Breathless that included a few songs from the film but mostly offered material ďinspiredĒ by the flick. This included the megahit ďVogueĒ, and Maddy also pushed the movie hard during her enormously successful ďBlonde AmbitionĒ tour that summer.
It didnít matter, as Tracy failed to live up to expectations. The movie didnít truly bomb, as it managed to gross a passable $103 million. However, that didnít approach the $251 million heights of Batman, and Tracy failed to even be the biggest success of 1990. Actually, it landed seventh on that list as it lost out to much less heralded flicks like Home Alone and Dances With Wolves - not exactly what everyone thought would happen.
Perhaps Tracy failed to light up box offices simply because it wasnít a very good movie. Though it seems mildly entertaining as a whole, the picture never becomes anything compelling or distinctive. It provides a relentlessly average enterprise.
Tracy follows the titular hero as he attempts to clean up the city. Primarily this means he takes on top crime boss Big Boy Caprice (Pacino), a gangster who just took over the rackets run by Lips Manlis (Sorvino). That includes Lipsí nightclub and star attraction, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
And thatís basically the whole plot! Granted, some subplots develop as well. Early in the film, Tracy meets the Kid (Charlie Korsmo), a tough orphan who warms Dickís heart and becomes his apprentice of sorts. We also encounter a modest love triangle that concerns commitment-phobe Tracy, his long suffering girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley), and the seductive Breathless. However, most of the story remains where it belongs: on the hero and the villain.
Dick Tracy clearly takes many cues from Batman, though in some ways, their visuals couldnít look much different. Batman features a dark universe, while everything in Tracy sports bright and cartoony colors. But both share the fact that they show exceedingly stylized worlds, so the locale of Tracy ultimately reminds me a little too much of Gotham City.
The basic story seema like a moderate case of dťjŗ vu as well. In Batman, a criminal toppled an established boss to take over his rackets and battle the hero. Thatís basically what we find in Tracy. Admittedly, I canít criticize Tracy heavily for this area, since plenty of movies recycle similar plots, but it seems particularly uninventive to simply duplicate what we already saw in Batman a year earlier.
While I think these areas showed clear ďinspirationĒ from Batman, one could argue that I just imagined the similarities. One could argue that if they both didnít use Danny Elfman as the composer. One could argue that if Elfman didnít just write the same score a second time. Oh, the Tracy music doesnít literally offer a note-for-note replication, but boy are they a lot alike!
It seems obvious that all behind Tracy tried hard to get that Batman mojo working for them; I sense they had the ďif it ainít broke, donít fix itĒ attitude. Unfortunately, this doesnít work.
For one, as a director, Beattyís no Tim Burton, as he lacked the flair and panache to pull off the gripping stylization found in Burtonís work. To be sure, Tracyís city seems like an interesting place, but it comes across as self-consciously artsy to me. Beatty shoves the whole comic book theme in our faces too much, and it feels more like a gimmick than anything else.
In addition, the characters simply arenít as interesting. Tracy himself is pretty much a bore, and Caprice lacks much real personality. To be sure, neither remotely compares to the richness of Batman or the Joker.
The acting doesnít help. Actually, Beatty seems decent as Tracy; itís simply hard to do anything with such a drab character. Pacino provides little flair as Caprice, however. He yells a lot and acts obnoxious Ė pretty much Pacinoís MO from the late 70s to date - but thatís about it. He provides none of the spark and gleeful energy Jack Nicholson showed in Batman.
Probably the most entertaining acting found in Tracy comes from Hoffman as Mumbles. The role amounts to little more than a cameo, but itís a very amusing and entertaining one. Mumbles emerges as one of the few engaging and lively characters in the entire piece.
As for Madonna - well, I do love her music, but I canít say I think much of her acting. She does decently as Breathless; the cartoony nature of the project matches up nicely with her less-than-stellar skills. However, she fails to make much of a mark with the role, though she could have walked away with the film if sheíd possessed better skills.
Really, Dick Tracy feels like so many missed opportunities. Despite all of the griping I just provided, I canít say I dislike the movie. However, I canít really say I like it, either.
At best, the film provides a watchable and moderately entertaining experience. Unfortunately, it seems like a serious case of ďbeen there, done thatĒ, as the movie does little more than ride on the coattails of prior successes. Unquestionably, Iíve seen many worse comic book based films, but Dick Tracy remains a lackluster piece of work nonetheless.