Famous movie gangster Warren Beatty directs and stars in this film as comic strip detective Dick Tracy. It’s not a great movie, but as Ray Bradbury said about the film adaptation of “Something Wicked this Way Comes,” it is pleasantly nice. The hero and the story are a little dull, but there’s lots of good music and plenty of visual wizardry.
Beatty and company successfully achieve a vibrant, comic-strip world onscreen, made of primary colors, sharp suits, and vintage automobiles. Extensive and expensive makeup effects were employed to transform an army of famous character actors into Tracy’s famous villains. It’s a great looking movie, with cityscapes and action sequences that are probably the final hurrah of pre-digital imaging technology. Dick Tracy probably benefits from the experience of technicians who’d worked on other Disney-Touchstone projects like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The same seamless marriage of live-action and animated elements is at work in this film, creating a kind of cartoon beauty that computer-generated visuals never seem to achieve. Much of the credit for this must inevitably go to the film’s cinematographer, the legendary Vittorio Storaro, who made his name working for Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Coppola.
Unfortunately: Dick Tracy manages to be a fairly dull movie, in spite of its colorful cast and visual flair. This movie is clearly inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman - or perhaps "haunted by" Tim Burton's movie - in almost every regard. But Batman it ain't. For example, Danny Elfman’s score for Dick Tracy could easily be mistaken for Batman’s if you’re not listening carefully. Also, like Batman - and to be fair, like many movies - Dick Tracy is about a rivalry between a hero and a villain that must results in a violent showdown, with the fate of a city in the balance. The site of this film's final battle even looks like the scene of the bell tower showdown between Batman and The Joker, complete with clockworks and perilous heights.
The villain in this case is Big Boy, played by Al Pacino, who’s great. A little too great actually. He’s a little too colorful and too likeable, and he steals the show from Dick Tracy, who is played with as little personality as possible by Beatty. Incidentally, Tracy is also the only significant male character in the film who’s face isn’t sculpted into a cartoon, which makes him less flamboyant and interesting than his rival. The result is something like Bruce Wayne going after the Joker, without ever becoming Batman. Another problem is that there’s no history between the two sworn enemies. Tracy is outwardly obsessed with taking down Big Boy, but there’s no personal grudge involved, as there was between Bruce Wayne and the Joker. Frankly, we know nothing of Tracy's past or his inner self, and this is the critical difference between a first-class hero like Batman or Spiderman, and a second-class hero like Dick Tracy. In an attempt to humanize Warren Beatty's robotic detective, the script grafts a young sidekick named The Kid onto Tracy – kind of like Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - but his presence feels like an attempt to keep the movie from being too adult. Speaking of things being too adult: the scenes between Beatty and Madonna are a little too sexy for a PG film, and the violence is a little too violent and random, and I say that as a lover of sex and violence. It fails to strike a comfortable balance of these elements that isn’t too extreme for kids or too soft for adults... like Batman, for example.
It’s probably not fair of me to keep comparing this movie to Batman, but damn it, I can’t watch this movie and not think “that’s like Batman, but not as cool” every five minutes. Disney made this movie because they wanted a lucrative franchise like Batman, and Warren Beatty happened to have his dream project about Dick Tracy on hand, along with Madonna. Plus, Disney had already made big money with another cartoon-noir, a genre they’d invented, with 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? At the end of the day, it comes down to story and character, and the material is too flat. The concept of someone like Bruce wayne transforming himself into Batman is a psychological tour-de-force that everybody understands and relates to. As an idea, Dick Tracy just isn't in the same league.
That’s enough Batman; I want to talk about Madonna again. The most ingenious creative move by the makers of this film was to have Madonna, as cabaret singer Breathless Mahoney, perform songs by Broadway composer Steven Sondheim. Much of the clunky storyline and Beatty’s not-so-spectacular acting manages to float along on the power of Madonna’s musical numbers. Madonna’s treatments of Sondheim’s songs accompany every montage - and there are many montages, perhaps one every ten minutes or so, more montages than anyone had ever thought possible. Somehow, the songs and editing make time and action pass in way that makes up for the dull story most of the time. Madonna also produced some pretty good songs of her own for the soundtrack to this movie, like “Vogue”. This film is probably the reason Evita got made a few years later – another ambitious but ultimately dull event film that shows off Madonna’s ability to do Broadway-style material.
Released in November of 1990, Dick Tracy wasn’t a hit. Various plans to capitalize on the franchise, Batman-style, were scrapped. Disney had gone so far as to design a ride for the Disney MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, called Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers. This ride would have introduced the interactive dark ride technology that was ultimately used in Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin that allows people to shoot stuff with beams of light. Aside from the film flopping at the box office, Michael Eisner was reportedly uneasy with the idea of tourists “shooting up” bad guys, and Dick Tracy's Crimestoppers was nixed.
Dick Tracy has its most recognizable descendent in Frank Miller's Sin City. Mickey Rourke's latex face for the character Marv looks like something right out of Tracy, and Sin City's cartoon-noir style - directed in separate parts by the superstar team of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller - feels similar to Warren Beatty's handiwork over a decade earlier. Personally, I prefer Sin City. Maybe Sin City's success owes something to the fact that it didn't try to be a movie for children as well as adults.
In spite of the fact that nobody seems to love Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty has announced plans to make a sequel. He has also threatened to run for governor in the state of California. No one can say which of these two wild schemes will come to fruition first, if at all. If he achieves his dream of becoming a politician like fellow star-turned-governor Arnold Scharzenegger, I would like him to speak in a “rap” style like his hip-hop alter-ego, Senator Bulworth. I will cast a vote to make Warren Beatty America’s first rappin’ governor or senator, but only if he raps. No raps, no votes.
The DVD for this movie looks and sounds fine, but doesn’t have any special features. It would have been nice if Disney had included the animated short that had accompanied Dick Tracy's theatrical release: Roller Coaster Rabbit, starring Roger Rabbit. But they didn't. Oh well.