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The Untouchables: Special Edition

Can somebody please tell us what happened to Brian De Palma? The wunderkind of next-generation American directors that arrived in the '70s, De Palma built his reputation on such horror/suspense classics as Sisters, Blow Out, Body Double, and Dressed to Kill, and delivered a cinematic landmark with 1983's Scarface. But the past decade has seen De Palma in decline, helming films like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Raising Cain, and the critically reviled Mission to Mars. Mission: Impossible from 1996 was a financial success, but some De Palma watchers thought it didn't carry his directorial stamp. And with a film like 1998's Snake Eyes — among his most technically dazzling, with asynchronous narrative, split-screens, and long tracking shots — the overall effect was hampered by a second-rate script and a lot of overacting by Nicholas Cage. The fact is that De Palma is only as good as his material and his cast, and when a shoddy sci-fi like Mission to Mars gets greenlighted by studio execs, not even De Palma's gifts can rescue it. When Tom Hanks is dreadfully miscast in something like The Bonfire of the Vanities, compelling direction won't help. But fortunately, 1987's The Untouchables had all the right ingredients — a heady rush of prohibition-era Chicago mythology written by Chicago playwright David Mamet, and a trio of sturdy leads, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro. To date, The Untouchables stands as one of De Palma's best films yet. More a gangland fable told and retold to later generations than an actual piece of American history, The Untouchables efficiently relates the saga of U.S. Treasury agent Elliot Ness (Costner), who is sent to Chicago by the Feds to bring down the illegal liquor rackets, and particularly Al Capone (De Niro), the de facto lord of the city who has more control over the cops, judges, and juries than any elected official. Aggressive and idealistic, Ness teams up with the Chicago P.D. to go after Capone's booze, but before long he realizes that Capone will be notified of any police raid before it happens, turning hot leads into blind alleys. Thus, on a chance meeting Ness hires Jim Malone (Connery), a ruthless yet honorable cop who walks the beat despite his senior status because he's not on the take. Police recruit and top marksman George Stone (Andy Garcia) is drafted directly from the Academy, and with the addition of federal accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), the four become "The Untouchables," a group of lawmen who cannot be reached by Capone's influence, forcing the legendary ganglord to wage all-out war against them.

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With Mamet's script and talented, engaging actors in the leading roles, The Untouchables probably could have been directed by any kid fresh out of film school and been a moderate success. But in De Palma's hands it's a playground of cinematic delights. Often he needs to do little — virtually every scene with De Niro is a small Mamet masterpiece, and in Capone's famous baseball-bat allegory a single overhead zoom-back punctuates the aftermath of his violent rage. A raid on bootleg liquor crossing the Canadian border is done on horseback, even though there's no reason why Ness and the government couldn't do the same thing better with autos, but it's a wonderful excuse for cinematic flourish, and the sequence forms the thematic apex of the story. But most remarkable — and best remembered — is the train station shootout. De Palma often was accused of being a Hitchcockian acolyte in his earliest films, but here he reaches back to the earliest days of cinema and Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin to create a slow-motion montage of gunplay and fear (complete with baby carriage). But he also does the Russian one better, for Potemkin was a silent film, and title cards forced breaks in the slaughter on the Odessa steps. De Palma's sound design illustrates how crucial audio elements are in contemporary films, as he completely compresses the soundtrack during the shootout to a few small elements — gunshots, piercing violins, the squeaks and clatter of small wheels thumping down stairs. It's a few brief minutes, but it's also one of the high points of American cinema from the entire decade. Paramount's second DVD release of The Untouchables makes amends for the initial bare-bones DVD, with a crisp anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that appears identical to the original and both Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. New featurettes (produced by Laurent Bouzereau) include "The Script, The Cast" (18 min.), "Production Stories" (17 min.), "Re-Inventing the Genre" (14 min.), and "The Classic" (5 min.), which feature new interview footage with Brian De Palma and star Charlie Martin Smith, as well as archival interviews with Costner, Connery, Garcia, and Smith (including details on the casting of Robert De Niro over the original choice for Al Capone, Bob Hoskins). Also on board is the original featurette "The Men" (5 min.) and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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