Blu-ray Review: ‘Dick Tracy’ (1990) Looks Great, Unfortunately Stars Madonna

It’s not clear if Touchstone Pictures or parent company Disney knew what they had in their hands back in 1990 with “Dick Tracy.” It was a passion project for star Warren Beatty who took over directing duties for the project and brought on some of his famous friends like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and then-girlfriend Madonna (did they start dating during or after–I can’t recall), and the whole thing was the first of several not-great attempts to bring classic comic strips to the big screen (see “Brenda Starr,” “The Phantom”). In this case, it was the first splashy, big-budget comic-to-film adaptation to land after Tim Burton’s “Batman,” and with its ripped-from-the-comic strip look, high body count, and brief nudity, “Dick Tracy” did the “Sin City” on film thing before “Sin City” did.

But in spite of a stellar cast led by Beatty as the square-jawed cop, “Dick Tracy” never comes to life–it’s the rough idea of a “Dick Tracy” movie, stiff, formless, and kind of dumb.

Working from a script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., “Dick Tracy” sees the Chester Gould creation going up against the gangs being united under Al Pacino’s hunchbacked, malapropism-jabbering Big Boy Caprice. Big Boy’s taken over the operations for cement shoes recipient Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino), seizing the chunky gangster’s girl Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), and his club in the process. Meanwhile, as he tries to find some way to take down Big Boy, Dick has to contend with girl problems from his long-suffering lady Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) as well as a sticky-fingered orphan named Kid (Charlie Korsmo) who needs some kind of father figure.

There’s something to be said for telling your story briskly, but at 106 minutes, “Dick Tracy” never catches its breath, bouncing from setpiece to montage–Beatty loved his montages here–without letting any of the characters settle in. A subplot involving the mysterious Blank pulling strings behind the scenes to both help and destroy Big Boy ultimately makes no sense (nor does the identity of the person behind the mask).

For a director who has dealt with unwieldy, massive projects in the past (see “Reds”), Beatty seems adrift here. Working in front of and behind the camera either took its toll or he just couldn’t ever quite figure out what the right angle for it should be. The memorable, award-winning makeup effects and production design give Dick Tracy its life even as go-nowhere scenes suck that same life right out. Plus, it doesn’t help that Madonna delivers one in a long line of terrible performances, and every time she’s on screen with Beatty, it’s two actors reading lines stiffly at each other, their chemistry those of two people who just met and one of them is a terrible, terrible actress.

Of course, it would be a disservice to not single out some people doing fine work here: Headly is the kind of girl you want to take home to mom as Tess while Dustin Hoffman’s “Big Boy did it” is one of the reasons many of us still remember the movie. And Pacino seems to be having the most fun out of everyone, smacking his lips, wide-eyed, his character essentially a rat given a voice and a week’s worth of elocution lessons in Brooklyn.

“Dick Tracy,” for all of its production splendor, never coheres into a movie. It’s so pretty to look at (not that the recent Blu-ray release helps there), but it’s never occupied by characters or a story to justify all of the effort.

Special features and presentation

The 1080p picture often looks soft and a little muted–which is a problem for such a vibrant film like “Dick Tracy.” Like last year’s release of “The Rocketeer,” this disc is simply a slightly-better-than-DVD package which hasn’t gotten any particular love from the studio since its release.

Likewise, if you’re looking for special features, you’re out of luck. Besides a digital copy of the film, you won’t even find the original theatrical trailer.

“Dick Tracy” is available on Blu-ray from Touchstone Home Entertainment.