Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, making comic books come to life was a tough business. Popeye had the right comic book look but wasn't particularly entertaining. Tim Burton’s Batman created another totally unique world we had never seen before and met with a very favorable worldwide reaction even if the film’s plotting was sometimes deficient. Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, with more than $50 million spent on it, likewise establishes a peerless visual style that's unlike anything seen in movies before. If ever the look of a comic book could be transformed onto celluloid, this movie has done it. Sadly, though, looks aren't enough. The film is entertaining only in fits and starts with some serious problems.
Dick Tracy (Blu-ray + Digital Copy)
Directed by Warren Beatty
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 106 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 French, 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 26.50
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Review Date: December 6, 2012
Once again, the story is at fault. The most notable weakness of the narrative is in its structuring of the crimes. If one is going to have a police detective as the protagonist and have the criminal underworld determined to overcome him, the story needs to be set up that builds a hierarchy of mayhem leading up to a master plan of evil. Instead of this, Jim Cash and Jack Epps have used a scattershot approach to their plotting having Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) and arch nemesis Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) play a dull game of one-upmanship that is tedious to follow and that feels aimlessly unsatisfactory. Caprice wants to control all crime in the city; Tracy tries to stop him, but there are no real capers on either side, and without those specific plans which succeed or fail, we flounder around trying to form our own story out of the bits and pieces that have been offered. To his credit, director Beatty has done eye-catching montages for both Tracy’s initial successes against the mob and Caprice’s follow-up crime spree (the latter set to composer Stephen Sondheim’s catchy tune “Back in Business,” one of five songs the Tony and Oscar-winning composer supplied for the movie.)
Tracy has his own hands full with two women in this tale: his loyal girl Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and nightclub vamp Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). Neither of the two relationships ever goes beyond comic strip clinching, and a romantic bust up between Tracy and Tess adds an irritating complication to the story which could have been explained in simple dialogue exchanges between the two sweethearts. All of this is story weakness: the lack of a crime plot, the absence of true romance, a forced breakup, and then matters are further complicated by the introduction of an orphan kid (Charlie Korsmo) who witnesses a mob hit in the film's first few minutes and never even mentions to Tracy (whom he comes to love) that he could help him put the mob boss behind bars. The subplot with Tracy and Tess growing to love The Kid (as he’s called) but too busy to offer a permanent home putting him in line for the orphanage is sweet but another distraction.
Visually, though, the picture continually amazes. Dick Tracy has the shadowy, sinister look that enhanced Batman, but it has added splashes of garish primary color to emphasize the comic strip nature of the piece. Elaborate makeup (which won one of the film’s three Oscars) disguises half a dozen Hollywood star and character actors so that overplaying is really just about the only chance these actors have to make emotional points. But aside from Al Pacino who literally steals the show as Big Boy Caprice (in much the same way that Jack Nicholson stole Batman from Michael Keaton), the acting in the leading roles isn't much to speak of. Beatty is stolid to the point of mummification as the title character, Glenne Headley is a too mousy Tess, and Madonna's high exposure performance as Breathless is stiff and unconvincing (the Stephen Sondheim songs she's given to sing including the Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later” and the even better “What Can You Lose?” in a duet with the peerless Mandy Patinkin also point up her vocal inadequacies. It’s too bad someone like Bernadette Peters, a far better actress and singer, wasn’t engaged for the role.) In smaller parts, Charles Durning is fine as Chief Brandon, Charlie Korsmo endears as the initially bratty and later faithful as a bloodhound kid, Dustin Hoffman has fun as the whimpering Mumbles, R. J. Armstrong is a creepy Pruneface, and Dick Van Dyke peeps in briefly as the city's crooked district attorney (suggesting more could have been done with his character). Look briefly to catch glimpses of James Caan, Paul Sorvino (memorable as Lips), John Schuck, Estelle Parsons, Mike Mazurki, and Michael J. Pollard.
Because the story is so rashly plotted, Beatty's direction is similarly unbalanced. He shoots Madonna's musical sequences badly and then allows the editing to chop them up into almost incomprehensible bits. (There is one priceless moment when Big Boy attempts to take over choreographing the chorus girls leading to a very funny muddle of legs and feet.) The climactic showdown between Tracy, Caprice, and a faceless enemy (whose identity is one of the film's only surprises) isn't milked for all its dramatic impact, either. But, a perilous rescue from an exploding boiler engine makes for a snappy bit of adventure midway through the film, and both of those montage scenes are a tonic, but again, these slapdash highs and lows happen back-to-back throughout the movie making for a very jarring and only occasionally rewarding viewing experience.
The film is presented in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. The bright, almost fluorescent colors are beautifully handled in the encode pushing to the very boundaries of blooming without ever crossing over. Flesh tones are consistently presented. Sharpness is the film’s inconsistent aspect. Most of the film is sharp and appealing, and Beatty gives himself some glamour close-ups in soft focus, but some other scenes are soft for no apparent reason, and contrast is likewise either expertly dialed-in or slightly milky. Black levels are very good. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is a very impressive presentation. Several explosions in the film have really incredible heft in this mix, and there are some effective uses of split sound effects in various channels. Stephen Sondheim’s songs and Danny Elfman’s background score (which will certainly remind you of his work in Batman) get wonderful spread through the fronts and rears and constitute a welcoming immersive experience for the listener. Dialogue has been well recorded and has mostly been placed in the center channel with an occasional bit of directionalized dialogue to spice things up.
There are promo trailers for Oz:The Great and Powerful, ABC’s Castle, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The second disc in the set is the digital copy of the movie with enclosed instructions for transferring to Mac and PC devices.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Dick Tracy, for all its comic punch and bluster, just isn't consistently enjoyable. It has its moments, but it's a shame that Tracy wasn't as committed to finding a good story for himself as he was for jailing hoods. The Blu-ray is about as good as this film will ever look on home video, but it’s a crime that various participants in the film weren’t interviewed about their experiences in making the movie for this new release.