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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/12/02

Dick Tracy
1990 (2002) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Dick Tracy Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/F

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A-/A

Specs and Features

105 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 56:57 in chapter 8), Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, scene access (12 chapters), languages: English (DD & DTS 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

"Calling Dick Tracy…"

Comic book-to-film adaptations have been big business over the last 10-15 years (recently this trend seems to have shifted to video game-to-film adaptations, but that's a story for another day). On the surface, it may seem that Dick Tracy is yet another in the still growing cavalcade of comic book/action heroes brought to the silver screen (Spidey's finally getting his membership card in 2002). However, the unique vision of the filmmakers, and the spot-on execution of Dick Tracy effectively place this film far above many of its competitors as they duke it out in an epic battle for your attention.

The plot is simple, really, and nothing more than a skeleton on which to hang the film's distinctive style and action set pieces. Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) is the city's number one crime fighting cop out to stop the gang of Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino). But as usually happens in gangster flicks, a turf war quickly brews. The colorful, crazed crime boss Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino, deliciously performing a parody of himself a la The Godfather and Scarface) muscles in on Manlis's territory and his woman, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna, in a performance few others could pull off as well). As Big Boy cultivates his little empire, Tracy becomes more and more successful at foiling the crime syndicate's success. Big Boy and his goons soon have it up to here with Tracy's meddling, and decide to wipe him out with the help of a (literally) faceless mystery man. But as the plot unfolds, the story develops into a web of perilous double-crosses that could put not only our fearless hero, but also his loving girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), in dire straits.

Many of the comic book adaptations that I can recall over the last decade or more (has it REALLY been 13 years since Batman?) would probably be more accurately referred to as graphic novel adaptations. Films like The Crow, Spawn and, to a slightly lesser extent, Batman, are based on very dark, brooding and often graphically violent source material. Dick Tracy, on the other hand, is a different beast; it's a bright, colorful living comic book. The violence is cartoony, I don't recall any significant amounts of blood in the film and the bad guys are figuratively and literally 30's gangster stereotypes. Actors such as Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Dustin Hoffman and William Forsythe are buried within elaborate prosthetics, which give them unnaturally large chins, noses, lips and very flat heads. And then there's the movie's unique production design. The film is awash in bright primary colors - even the sidewalk trash cans are bright red. Every aspect of the film, from the characterization to the flamboyant sets and massive cityscape mattes, are straight out of the Sunday comics of the early-to-mid 20th Century. Aesthetically, Dick Tracy is brilliant.

But Dick Tracy's occasionally absurd script, and Warren Beatty's questionable portrayal of the title character, detract just enough from the film to keep it from becoming my favorite cinematic comic book adaptation (which, incidentally, is Tim Burton's Batman). Still, Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.'s script is better than average. Keeping in mind the aesthetic and historical context of the film, the over-the-top dialog is as juicy and tasty as a $20 steak, but every once in a while a character will spout out some idiotic line that would be unwelcome even in a Carrot Top flick. The most prominent example of this is Tracy's "Is the friend of my enemy my enemy?" verbal nonsense. But my biggest gripe about this film is Warren Beatty himself. Now, I understand that he directed and produced the film as well, but his artistic input should have ended there. Different people probably have different opinions of what a live action Dick Tracy should look like. That said, I found Beatty to be too old, too short and not beefcake enough to play the famous detective in the yellow trench coat. I'm not suggesting that the typical muscle-headed action star (that can barely enunciate the English language) should have been cast, but after considering it, I would like to have seen someone like Alec Baldwin in the role instead.

On DVD, Dick Tracy looks and sounds better than I ever expected it to. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is very pleasing. Colors are vibrant and accurate (if a touch oversaturated in places), and black levels are deep and pure. The video looks soft occasionally (which is largely intentional on the part of the filmmakers), but overall picture detail is quite good. Additionally, the print is clear of overt blemishes or source problems. I did notice some minor haloing from artificial sharpness enhancement, but it's far, far less of a problem than that of many other discs I've seen.

Even more impressive is the audio. Presented in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1, these energetic soundtracks have it where it counts. The film's many gunshots are punchy and forceful, and explosions will assuredly rock your subwoofer. The soundtracks contain nice ambient fill for the quieter moments, while the jazz and torch songs highlighting the film's musical montages boast respectable fidelity. Danny Elfman's exciting score is also done justice by these tracks. The Dolby and DTS tracks are very similar in character, but the DTS version excels just slightly, with more open highs and tighter low.

Now comes the sore spot. There are no extras on this disc - not even a trailer. Buena Vista was interested in doing a multi-disc Vista Series for Dick Tracy, with participation from the principal cast and crew. However, it's my understanding that the studio was not able to obtain sufficient talent participation to make the effort worthwhile. This is definitely a film that would be well served on DVD with "making-of" featurettes for the make-ups/prosthetics, music, set design, etc., as well as commentary tracks by the cast and crew. As far as I know, Buena Vista is still pursuing the talent involved with the film for an eventual special edition, but it could be at least a year or more away. Personally, I'm thrilled to finally have Dick Tracy on DVD, and doubly thrilled that it's in anamorphic widescreen and DTS.

Something I don't normally do in reviews is plug the soundtrack, but I'm going to now. Madonna's CD I'm Breathless contains the songs she performed in the film, along with several other tracks that were "inspired by" the film. It's a fantastic recording and, in my opinion, Madonna's last great album. This disc demonstrates that Madonna - who is not the most talented singer out there with respect to technique - has enough flair and, more importantly, the perfect sexual sensibilities to perform the sultry torch songs as well as the feisty upbeat numbers of the early 20th century. The tunes are addictive and catchy, highlighted by the powerful opening track He's a Man, and can also be quite pretty (Something to Remember and What Can You Lose?). Madonna had never recorded anything like it before, and she hasn't topped it since. If you don't already own this disc, pick it up while you're snagging the Dick Tracy DVD.

Dick Tracy is a unique action film that does a very good job of sucking the audience into its colorful, corrupt world, crawling with the most classic of gangsters. The film stays true to its identity and doesn't reach for anything more than it's capable of achieving. I went nuts for this film when I was 14, and that very same nuttiness is still with me today. With gorgeous anamorphic video, exciting digital sound and a low MSRP of $19.98, you can't afford to pass up this disc... even if an eventual Vista Series set is not entirely out of the question. Hurry and get this disc quick before Big Boy gives you "the bath."

Greg Suarez
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