The Untouchables

Released:  1987

Cast:  Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery

Oscar Wins:  Best Supporting Actor (Sean Connery)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Art Direction – Set Decoration (Patrizia von Brandenstein, William A. Elliott, Hal Gausman), Best Costume Design (Marilyn Vance), Best Score (Ennio Morricone)

SUMMARY:  In 1930, famed mobster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) is in control of Chicago, particularly its flow of alcohol (it’s Prohibition).  The government is desperate to stop Capone, but has been unable to pin anything on him.  An enthusiastic young officer from the Bureau of Prohibition, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), is assigned to the case; he gets off to a less-than-stellar start when a raid he plans fails due to police corruption.  Ness realizes that he will have to change his methods, and convinces career cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) to help him out.  Together, they recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia) from the police academy; the team is rounded out by government accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), who has been assigned to help Ness.  Acting on a tip from an unnamed Malone source, the four men conduct another raid, and this one is successful.  The raid makes the men famous, and the press gives them the name “The Untouchables”.  Capone is furious, and brutally (and in front of all his other henchmen) kills the man in charge of the shipment that was raided.  Meanwhile, accountant Wallace has discovered that Capone has not filed an income tax return in many years:  officially, this means that he has no income.  Wallace tells Ness and the others that if they can prove that Capone receives any income (even from legal businesses), they can send him to prison.  Ness has come to realize that this is probably the only chance of sending Capone to prison, since they will be unable to get him on a murder charge.  One day, a city official shows up in Ness’s office with a bribe, clearly from Capone.  Ness is insulted, and throws the man out of his office; that night when he returns home Ness finds Capone assassin Frank Nitti waiting outside his house.  Immediately, Ness has his pregnant wife and young daughter moved to a safe house.  Sometime later, the team learns that a liquor shipment will be coming through the Canadian border.  They travel to the location, and work with the Canadian police to raid the shipment.  Their raid is successful, though Stone gets shot in the shoulder, and the men capture one of Capone’s accountants.

The men intend to use the accountant as a witness for their tax evasion case, and scare him into agreeing to testify.  At the police station, Wallace is put in charge of transporting the man to a safe house.  The two take the elevator down together, but do not realize that the cop in the elevator is really Frank Nitti.  Once the doors close, Nitti shoots both the accountant and Wallace, then flees.  With the main witness gone, the district attorney decides to drop the case against Capone.  Ness and Malone are desperate to keep this from happening; Malone tells Ness to stall the district attorney while he tries to track down another witness.  This witness is Walter Payne, Capone’s head accountant – Malone believes he can get to this man through the police chief, who he knows is corrupt.  Malone does force this information out of the chief, but later that night an assassin with a knife sneaks into his apartment.  Malone catches the assassin, but doesn’t see the Frank Nitti, who has a machine gun.  He empties the gun into Malone, but Malone is able to drag himself back through his house.  This is where he is found some time later by Ness and Stone, who have arrived with the police.  Malone is still alive, but barely; before he dies, he manages to pass along the information about how Payne is leaving town that night.  The accountant, along with a group of guards, plan to leave on a train from Union Station shortly after midnight.  Ness and Stone hurry to the station, and station themselves at opposite ends.  Ness reluctantly breaks cover to help a young mother struggling with her baby and bags, and while he does this, is recognized by one of the men surrounding Payne.  A gunfight breaks out, during which Ness and Stone manage to kill all of the gangsters except Payne, who they capture alive.  With this new witness, Capone’s trial proceeds.  At the trial, Ness and Stone cannot understand why Capone seems so relaxed, since there is a huge amount of incriminating evidence against him.  Then, they notice that Frank Nitti is in the audience, and that he is openly wearing a gun.  They alert the bailiff, who removes Nitti from the courtroom, escorted by Ness.  In the hallway, they discover that Nitti has special permission from the mayor to carry the gun, and are forced to release him.  However, Ness also finds a matchbook that has Malone’s address written inside it, and realizes that it was Nitti who killed Malone.  Nitti panics and shoots the bailiff, then runs onto the roof of the courthouse, followed by Ness.  At one point, Ness has Nitti at gunpoint, but cannot bring himself to shoot the man in cold blood.  He arrests him and prepares to take him off the roof, but when Nitti mocks Malone and the way he died, Ness pushes him off the roof.  Back in the courtroom, Stone has another piece of paper found on Nitti:  a list of the jury members in the trial, and amounts paid to them in bribes.  Too afraid of Capone, the judge refuses to act on the evidence until Ness threatens him; the judge then switches the jury with one in the next courtroom.  Capone’s lawyer immediately changes the plea to guilty, and Capone erupts in outrage; he is later sentenced to 11 years in prison.  Ness packs up his office, bids goodbye to Stone, and walks out of the police station.

MY TAKE:  This movie covers one of the most notorious crime stories in U.S. history, but I actually found it a little lacking.  Everybody knows about Al Capone, but there’s almost no backstory in the movie, either about Capone or Ness and how they came to be in their current positions.  Particularly, I think it would have been helpful to have seen how all previous attempts to bring Capone to justice had failed:  at the time the movie starts, it has apparently become a given that nobody will get Al Capone for murder or violation of Prohibition or any of the major crimes he obviously committed.  This is why the government decided to go after Capone for income tax evasion – because they could actually prove it.  However, I think it would have made for a better story, as well as making Capone more intimidating, if some of these past failed attempts had been shown.  It might also have helped to see how many police officers and other officials Capone had bribed, since it would give the viewer a sense of the corruption, and just what Ness and his men were up against.  I guess that I just wish that the plot was a little deeper all around:  it’s interesting to watch Ness’s team stalk Capone, but I would have liked to see more of the preliminary actions, like how they learned about the liquor shipments.  There are some great moments, like the one where Capone is in a meeting after the first successful raid, and the scene in Union Station.  In the meeting scene, Capone wanders around with a baseball bat, making a speech about the importance of teamwork (using baseball as an analogy).  Personally, it made me nervous to see a nutter like Capone wandering behind people with a bat, and sure enough, he ends up whacking somebody over the head with it and killing him right there.  You kind of know it’s coming, but the anticipation of watching him walk around behind the lackeys is great.  It’s also great in the Union Station scene, when Ness is trying to decide what to do about the struggling mother.  At first, I thought he was just worried that she would get in the way of the anticipated gunfight, or that she was causing a distraction that would make the gangsters choose a different path.  Then, I started to think that he probably is also fighting his conscience:  he’s a nice guy, and he has a wife and young children at home.  When anybody with a sense of decency sees a person struggling like that, they help out.  Ultimately, this is what Ness decides to do, though he sits there and does the tennis-match thing (looking one way, then the other, then back the first way, etc.) about a thousand times before he acts.  Of course, once he finally does act, the gangsters show up, and the proverbial poop hits the fan.  Another tension-laden moment occurs as Ness bumps the stroller carrying the baby, and it starts to roll back down the considerable staircase – in slow motion.  The mother freaks out, and Ness starts chasing the stroller, blasting away as he goes.  The baby is fine, but the agony of watching it slowly bump down the stairs, one at a time, is horribly awesome.

RATING:  Some awesome scenes, but could use a more developed plot.


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