By Chaz Lipp

Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy is a perfect example of how a movie can get everything just right from a technical standpoint, yet still fall short of being a great movie. It was meant to be Disney’s answer to the 1989 pop culture phenomenon, Batman. Tim Burton’s film was at least as popular in its day as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series and Disney saw the opportunity to launch what they hoped would be a similarly lucrative franchise.

I was looking forward to revisiting the film on Blu-ray after not having seen it any time recently. The new high definition presentation reinforces everything I’ve always felt about it. Such care was put into every last detail of the production. It’s hard not to be dazzled by the unique, primary colors-only world that these iconic cops, robbers, and femme fatales live within. Beatty, who’d been angling to adapt Chester Gould’s comic strip for a decade and a half, was clearly bent on crafting what is arguably the rarest beast in all of Hollywood: a big-budget summer blockbuster infused with real emotion and intelligence.

It fell short in one key area. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. are credited with having penned the screenplay, but as always with large scale productions—especially those helmed by an auteur such as Beatty—it’s uncertain where to place blame for lackluster storytelling. The bottom line is, Tracy is basically a ’30s-era gangster movie that wallows in all the stock clichés the subgenre has to offer. In fact, in terms of plot alone this Tracycould’ve been made back alongside the Dick Tracy serials of the ‘30s and feature films of the ‘40s. It’s pacing is oddly stagnant and there’s a concerning lack of memorable dialogue. By the time the closing credits run, it’s hard not to be left thinking, “All that visual and sonic artistry for that?”

The all-star cast is largely unrecognizable below the Oscar-winning makeup (by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler), save for Beatty in the title role and Madonna as nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney, so the first thing that really stands out is the art direction. Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson richly deserved their Best Art Direction Oscar for realizing an environment that manages to remain true to the flat look of the comic strip while opening things up just enough to always be visually interesting. The decision by Beatty to use primary colors for everything was a stroke of genius, lending a one-of-kind stylized look to the film. It’s a candy-colored crime epic.

About the makeup, most of the side characters were done up to look like their print sources. As a result, aside from Tracy, his best gal Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), his “adopted” son The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), and Breathless, much of the cast looks like a bunch of live-action caricatures. Al Pacino earned an Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for his over-the-top turn as crime boss Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice. Paul Sorvino slurps raw oysters as Lips Manlis, owner of the Club Ritz that Caprice seeks to take over. Dustin Hoffman has a few very funny (and intentionally difficult to decipher) scenes as Mumbles, one of Caprice’s men who just can’t keep his mouth shut. James Caan, William Forsythe, Seymour Cassel, Dick Van Dyke, Charles Durning, Mandy Patinkin, Catherine O’Hara, and Henry Silva all turn up in small roles.

Then there’s the music. The score is immediately recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman, while five original songs were written by Stephen Sondheim. Beatty absolutely knew what to do with Madonna (apparently both in the film and otherwise, given their highly publicized real-life relationship at the time), shining the spotlight on her for “More” and the Oscar-winning showstopper “Sooner or Later.” For my money, this is the best Madonna’s ever been in a movie. Her dangerous flirtation with Tracy, naturally off-putting to his loyal girlfriend Tess (who patiently waits year after year for Tracy to pop the question), is believable and a highlight of the film.

 When all is said and done, Dick Tracy is an ingeniously crafted visual and aural feast that’s saddled with a story that simply lacks forward momentum and invention. That’s not to say it’s bad, just considerably less than exciting. “Big Boy” wants to run Club Ritz, he wants his goons to help him run the city, and he wants Breathless at his disposal. Tracy, who stays on the streets because he feels a promotion to Chief of Police would be a copout, will stop at nothing to prevent that from happening. We’ve seen it all before and since, so it’s hard not to feel like the production team put all their efforts into the look and sound of the film, assuming incorrectly that it would be enough.

If you like Tracy, I cannot recommend the Blu-ray enough. The transfer is beautiful, accurately representing cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s Oscar-nominated work. The colors, so vital to Beatty’s concept for the film, burst forth in a way they have not in previous home video formats. Sharpness is only lacking when the cinematography is purposefully soft-focus. In other words, this is how Storaro and Beatty wanted the film to look, as far as I can tell, and it’s a pleasure to look at.

What I didn’t realize until recently was that Tracy was the first film to utilize all-digital sound recording. I guess this might be at least partly why the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix doesn’t sound like a 23-year-old soundtrack. The clarity is stunning, with very robust gunfire and other effects during the more action-oriented scenes. Disney has done a great job bringing Dick Tracy to high definition and fans of the film are likely to appreciate the results.

With one exception, that is. There are no extra features here, which is a shame because with such a fascinating backstory, Dick Tracy is a film that could’ve really benefitted from a special edition. Not only would a retrospective piece on the making of the film have been welcome, but it also could’ve used something to place Beatty’s film in the context of the overall Dick Tracy legacy. Oh well, it didn’t happen. As frustrating as it is brilliant, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracyis still a film worth seeing.

(Photos: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)

*Please note, the photos are promotional stills, not screencaps and should not be seen as representative of the Blu-ray transfer.
Chaz Lipp

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