All movies have their copycats. Take a look at how many movies shamelessly stole the basic premise and story beats from 'Die Hard'. Still, it's rare that a copycat production gets as many resources as 'Dick Tracy'. The film went through development off and on since 1975, going through a slew of directors and studios, before finally ending up at Disney with Warren Beatty taking the reins as producer, director, and star. By the time the film was released in 1990, Tim Burton's imaginative take on 'Batman' had found previously unimaginable levels of success, and 'Dick Tracy's production was heavily influenced by the vision Burton brought to the screen.
Warren Beatty stars as the title character, a square-jawed police detective sporting a yellow overcoat and fedora. Armed with his trusty wristwatch communicator, Dick Tracy tries to clean the streets of a crimewave headed by Alphonse "Big Boy" Caprice (Al Pacino) and his outlandish gang of goons. In the midst of this, Tracy also tries to lead a life with his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), an orphan boy that Tracy saved from a life on the street. Things get muddled when "Big Boy" decides to expand his operations, and Tracy becomes tempted by lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
'Dick Tracy' certainly was an ambitious production. Warren Beatty had long been involved with previous attempts to bring the property, based on the 1930's comic strip created by Chester Gould, to the screen. The cameras almost rolled on a version with Walter Hill as the director, but Beatty pulled out because he thought Hill's vision was too violent and not true to the strip. Beatty himself decided to direct when he got the greenlight from Disney. Looking at the film now, it's hard not to see the influence of Tim Burton's 'Batman' all over it. The production design is big, gaudy, and utilizes massive hand-painted mattes. The villains, from Pacino's "Big Boy" down to the lowliest goons, are outrageous, covered in face-altering prosthetics. Beatty's performance, especially his scenes with Glenne Headly, seems to channel Michael Keaton's take on Bruce Wayne, while Madonna is the Kim Basinger substitute. Beatty even commissioned regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman to compose the score, and the similarities are unmistakable. Even the opening, featuring Tracy rounding up the tools of his trade, feels like Batman suiting up.
Just because Beatty aped a sensational hit film doesn't mean that 'Dick Tracy' hits the same heights. While as a character Dick Tracy certainly has his iconic elements, most especially the wrist communicator, he's certainly not as universally recognizable as Batman, so Beatty is already operating at a disadvantage. And there's no hook for Tracy like the loss of Bruce Wayne's parents. Unfortunately, Beatty doesn't go far to ingratiate Tracy to his audience. The character is there to uphold the law, and that's all there is to it. His struggles with Tess are interesting, but not quite enough to crack through to the heart of the character. Perhaps the best portion of the film in terms of character development comes in the form of The Kid. Charlie Korsmo's transition from world-weary urchin to wide-eyed junior partner is deftly played. I'm not usually a fan of kids in action films, but 'Dick Tracy' makes it work.
The supporting cast for the film is staggering. Beatty must have called in every favor he was owed, because aside from Pacino, you get cameos from James Caan, Dick Van Dyke, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, and a whole host of character actors including Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, William Forsythe, James Tolkan, and many others. The sheer amount of acting talent on the screen in any given moment is somewhat dulled by the fact that Beatty has everyone play their roles as 30's stereotypes. In a way this is the film equivalent of hearing an old-timey radio drama such as 'The Shadow'. Beatty is largely exempt, playing Tracy more naturalistically, which makes him something of an ill-fitting match. By far the worst turn comes from Pacino, who goes right off the rails. "Big Boy" Caprice is loud, obnoxious, and a poor stand-in for Nicholson's campy but enjoyable performance as The Joker in 'Batman'. If you ever want a master class in scenery-chewing, look no further than Pacino in 'Dick Tracy'.
Luckily there's a surplus of scenery to be chewed. Shot almost entirely on soundstages, 'Dick Tracy' is a sumptuous visual experience. Beatty made the daring decision to restrict the film's color palette to seven colors, and each instance of those colors would be exactly the same shade. This was an attempt to have the film recreate the style of the original strip, and it does give the movie its own unique visual look. Things like red cars parked on the side of the road stand out in ways they wouldn't otherwise. Beatty and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro agreed that they would limit camera movement as much as possible, to make the film feel like a series of still panels, like the comic strip. Beatty also decided to replicate the more outrageous look of many of the villains, resulting in many of the actors being covered in incredible prosthetics, even for minor characters with barely any lines. This helps 'Dick Tracy' create its own reality even more than 'Batman' did.
Another good move was a musical one. No, not Danny Elfman's score, which could have been made from rejected cues for 'Batman', but the inclusion of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, responsible for many of the greatest musicals of the 20th century, wrote five songs for the film, and Beatty integrates them smartly, avoiding turning the picture into a full-blown musical. The high point is "What Can You Lose?" a duet between Madonna and the multi-talented Mandy Patinkin. Looking back now, Sondheim's songs leave the best impression, being both memorable and timeless.
Despite its flaws, 'Dick Tracy' is undeniably fun. The film chugs along at a smart clip, and much of its imagery stays with you. The concrete bath that "Big Boy" gives to Lips Manlis was such a vivid sequence that it's stayed with me for twenty-two years since I last saw the picture. Beatty portrays Tracy as a dedicated but fair and even caring guy (although another contender for the role back in the 70's was Clint Eastwood, who would have pegged the hard-boiled nature of the character better than Beatty does here), which makes him sympathetic even if the characterization written into the script is thin. And even if the movie does seem like a 'Batman' rip, it also manages to evoke the feeling of the original strip it's based on. Given how many comic book adaptations these days go out of their way to feel gritty and realistic, it's refreshing to see a movie like 'Dick Tracy', which unapologetically stands by the roots of the source material.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dick Tracy' arrives on a single Blu-ray with a digital copy included on a separate disc. The case comes in a slipcover which exactly replicates the cover art. There are a few trailers that can be skipped one by one or all at once by hitting the menu button, and these trailers are available on the disc menu.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents 'Dick Tracy' in an AVC-encoded 1.85:1 1080p transfer. When the film starts up, things look dire. The image is unreasonably noisy, with sections of the image even breaking up, and the optical titles look ragged and faded. Luckily, things settle in pretty quickly, but the transfer isn't all aces. The video is undeniably in high definition. There's a reasonable amount of detail. You'll be able to see that the freckles on Flattop's face are clearly drawn on, and you'll be able to admire the incredible prosthetic work throughout the production. You'll even be able to see just how sheer Madonna's nightgown is when Dick Tracy confronts Breathless in her dressing room. Additionally, the color palette is quite noticeable. Tracy's yellow coat and hat stand out like a beacon. However, there's no pop to the proceedings. The whole thing feels drab, perhaps a result of the late 80's film stocks the production used.
Even when there isn't noise, there's always a sheen of grain. I'm the first to champion proper film grain reproduction on Blu-ray. Too many people wipe out detail in an image trying to reduce film grain, because film grain makes the image. However, here, it seems like some of the grain is the result of less than ideal film elements. I don't know what condition the source print was, but it seems to me that a more comprehensive restoration process could have really let 'Dick Tracy' shine on Blu-ray. As it is, it doesn't look terrible, but it falls short of what it could have been.
Disney includes a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, as well as a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track, a Spanish 2.0 stereo mix, and an unlisted Russian 5.1 mix that is actually the English mix with Russian dubbing played on top (you can still hear the original English dialogue underneath). The DTS mix has plenty of oomph. When Tracy punches a goon, you feel it, with a strong and responsive LFE track. Elfman's score and Sondheim's songs also shine, and the dynamic range ably accommodates the harsh brass, the warm strings, and Madonna's high vocals. Dialogue is clear, although at times the balance seems a tad off as the sound effects sometimes overpower the other elements in the mix. This may be a holdover from the film's original sound design, as 'Dick Tracy' was the first feature film to employ digital sound, and even at the time Danny Elfman complained how digital sound favored sound effects over music.
The biggest failing of the DTS mix is in the imaging and directionality. The mix is aggressive, but the soundstage never feels encompassing. You become battered by the sound instead of enveloped in it. And as far as directionality goes, the rears are only ever used for the score, a disappointment given how intensely the sound effects come across. All the dialogue and effects are confined to the front speakers, and they sound fine, but it does make the mix sound artificial.
The disc comes with English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. Additionally it also contains unadvertised Portuguese and Russian subtitles.
The disc offers trailers for upcoming Disney films in theaters and on Blu-ray, such as 'Oz: The Great and Powerful', 'Castle', an ad for several ABC shows, the 25th anniversary edition of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit', and a spot for the 'Mary Poppins' stage musical. Noticeably absent are any special features that relate to 'Dick Tracy' (one could argue the 'Roger Rabbit' ad is related as one of the shorts featured on that disc originally ran with 'Tracy').
Warren Beatty is one of those directors who doesn't like special features and commentaries, so it should be no surprise that 'Dick Tracy' doesn't offer any. Still, not even the film's own theatrical trailer is included, something that usually even famed anti-commentary director Woody Allen allows. It's a shame, because 'Dick Tracy' is a film that could very much benefit from a strong set of features to bolster it. The movie isn't perfect but it remains intriguing, and it would have been great to hear the cast and crew discuss it.
'Dick Tracy' falls into the category of films that I think of as flawed but fascinating. Objectively, it's impossible to say that 'Dick Tracy' is a great film, or even a very good one, but when you look at all the elements that went into the production, and the context from which it sprung, it's also impossible to dismiss it. The Blu-ray doesn't offer much incentive to buy it, with a drab and noisy transfer and aggressive but limited sound mix. The fact that there's not s single special feature for such an interesting production is salt in the wound. 'Dick Tracy' is a movie worthy of watching every now and then, but this Blu-ray doesn't offer enough to justify a purchase except for fans of the film.