Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Untouchables’: Where Are They When You Need Them?

December 6, 2020 Updated: December 10, 2020

R | | Crime, Drama, Thriller | 3 June 1987 (USA)

According to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the 2020 presidential election may be the biggest presidential theft since 1824. Where is the spirit of “The Untouchables” now? That is, where are the incorruptible warriors who won’t sit idly by while the hallowed American Constitution drowns in the tide of socialism currently washing over America from the redwood forest to the New York island?

“The Untouchables” (1987) was a big hit when it came out. Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, with then rising star Kevin Costner playing Eliot Ness, the morally upright (almost to the point of caricature) young Fed is tasked with a mission impossible: stopping the murderous Al Capone (Robert De Niro), along with a Capone-pocket-dwelling Chicago police department so corrupt that it stinks to high heaven.

mand in tan coat and white fedora in "The Untouchables"
Robert De Niro (C) as Al Capone in “The Untouchables.” (Paramount Pictures)

Streamlining

In moviegoers’ minds, director Brian De Palma was mostly known at the time for searing the unfading image of Sissy Spacek as a blood-drenched prom queen, in Stephen King’s high-school gore fest “Carrie.”  Using much dramatic license, De Palma whittles “The Untouchables” actual, historical federal task force down to a bite-sized team of four men.

four men with shotguns in "The Untouchables"
(L–R) Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, and Charles Martin Smith play incorruptible lawmen in “The Untouchables.” (Paramount Pictures)

Who are they? Dogged and incorruptible Irish beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery); George Stone (Andy Garcia), a tough-as-nails Italian police academy hotshot who changed his last name because he didn’t want to be associated with Capone’s Mafia; and Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith, most famous for playing “Toad” in “American Graffiti”)—a normally nerdy numbers-spewing government accountant who, surprisingly, has no problem blasting bad guys with a shotgun.

The Fundamental Issue

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet scripted “The Untouchables.” While it doesn’t bear the stamp of Mamet’s iconoclastic, hyperintelligent, barebones, hemming-and-hawing-while-inferring-extensive-information-during-pauses style, he highlights the fact that Prohibition came about due to America’s deciding that alcohol caused social problems.

Well, supply and demand: Capone filled the alcohol vacuum brought about by America’s moral conservatism. But that was only possible due to what I mentioned in a review of “Spotlight.” America’s collective subconscious is akin to a tut-tutting elderly church lady, and the reality of America is often that our puritanical roots and public do-good façade, while strong and admirable in the time of the Shakers and George Washington, have long since eroded. America, generally speaking, had no intention whatsoever of giving up drinking.

And so, it’s much like the storyline of “Mississippi Burning” (1988): Willem Dafoe’s by-the-book FBI agent is stymied by the Ku Klux Klan until he’s convinced by Gene Hackman’s salty lawman that they need to stoop to the level of the KKK’s dirty tricks in order to nab the evildoers. Here, Connery’s salty cop has to convince Costner’s extremely law-abiding treasury agent that they’ll need to bend the rules and play dirty to get Capone.

two men in a church in "The Untouchables"
Sean Connery (L) and Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables.” (Paramount Pictures)

The main example of this is when Ness’s crew nab a team of mobsters sneaking liquor over the border from Canada. The mob boss refuses to talk. He doesn’t realize that in the skirmish leading to his capture, one of his boys already got killed out on the porch. Connery’s Malone goes out, snatches up the dead man, props him next to the window where his boss can see the back of his head, sticks a shotgun barrel in the man’s mouth, hollers that he’ll shoot if he doesn’t talk, and then “Blam!” The mob boss starts singing like a canary.

Capone

Throughout, Capone rules Chicago from his hyperluxurious Hotel Lexington suite, where he uses the time-honored method of meting out gangster punishment at sumptuous banquets. He lectures about shortcomings challenging the business, all the while stalking around the banquet table twirling a baseball bat. You can guess the rest.

man in tuxedo in "The Untouchables"
Robert De Niro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables.” (Paramount Pictures)

Robert De Niro’s Al Capone—it’s not one of his better creations. There’s a lot of attitude, some yelling, some smirking, but no insight into Capone’s mythic, psychopathic genius.

Little by little, the Untouchables (they couldn’t be bought, hence the name) erode Capone’s power like pulling sticks out of a Jenga tower, until eventually they get him on income tax charges.

man holds up newspaper in "The Untouchables"
Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables.” (Paramount Pictures)

While Costner anchors the film with his powerful moral core, Connery steals every scene he’s in. And more than Connery, it’s actor Billy Drago, playing Capone’s main henchman, with his creepy, utterly evil sneer and immaculate white suit and fedora, who leaves the impression that your mind will reference whenever you think of this film.

man in white suit and hat in "The Untouchables"
Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), an assassin for Al Capone in “The Untouchables.” (Paramount Pictures)

“The Untouchables” felt untouchable in ’87; it felt cutting-edge, one of those movies you saw multiple times, and not just due to the fact that in ’87 there was not yet the deluge of Hollywood entertainment “product” as there is in 2020. Make that 2019 (you know why). Today, it feels ever-so-slightly innocent and boy-scout-like. But that’s not a bad thing.

bomb explosion in a pharmacy in "The Untouchables"
A bomb planted by Al Capone’s men goes off in a pharmacy, killing a little girl in “The Untouchables.” (Paramount Pictures)

So, again—Where are the Untouchables in 2020, when the galleon of the American Constitution is beset by the canons of socialism? Because while America may not have enjoyed Prohibition, if we get usurped by socialism (which is by definition merely a way station to communism), we can count on a whole more being prohibited than alcohol.

‘The Untouchables’
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Patricia Clarkson, Billy Drago
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Rating: R
Release Date: June 3, 1987
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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