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