Want to know the exact parameters of the line between the Movie Brats of the ’70s and the blockbuster mentality of the ’80s?
A decade earlier, The Untouchables – built upon virtuoso visual excess, blatant homages to classic world cinema, a leading playwright on script duties and Robert De Niro – would have augured an intense blast of Method angst and lashings of critical acclaim.
Here, it makes for barnstorming multiplex entertainment.
If anybody should recognise that ambiguous slippage between art and commerce, it’s Brian De Palma. Spielberg and Lucas aside, De Palma’s genius for set-pieces ensured he was the Brat most likely to succeed amid the high-concept polish of the ’80s.
Yet, because he still yearned for the reputation of Scorsese and Coppola, his pulp fiction aspired to high art. If Scarface was De Palma’s Mean Streets, this is his attempt at replicating The Godfather’s burnished classicism.
There’s a notional subtext that gangbuster Eliot Ness has to sink to Al Capone’s level of ruthlessness in order to defeat him.
Really, though, De Palma’s style rides substance out of town to leave a glorious compendium of genre cool, remixing the original ’50s TV series just as Indiana Jones took a whip to ’30s serial adventures.
It’s achieved with considerable panache by a director/writer team who found an unlikely symbiosis by avoiding each other.
De Palma allowed David Mamet to set the breathless pace through his witty, profane dialogue; Mamet, in turn, apparently left several pages of the script blank for De Palma to engineer the action’s dizzying loops and plunges.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the self-contained bravura of the Union Station sequence.
Critics can moan all they like that De Palma’s cheeky plunder from Soviet icon Battleship Potemkin doesn’t match the emotional and intellectual force of Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence, but they’re missing the point.
This is showboating, and it is showboating without peer. De Palma encourages his cast to match his flamboyance, exempting Kevin Costner, who anchors the extravagance with such earnestness he never really escapes Ness’ shadow.
De Niro chews as much scenery as is required to play kingpin Capone – or maybe he just wanted to out-Scarface Pacino.
Meanwhile, Oscar-winning Sean Connery might be cinema’s least convincing Irishman but his roguish charisma is true to the film’s spirit, making the choicest cut from Mamet’s sparkling street-philosopher lingo (“He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue”) sound like a mantra for The Untouchables’ entire one-better approach to movie-making.