Warren Beatty’s attempt to crack the comic franchise racket never stood a chance.
The 1990 film “Dick Tracy” followed Tim Burton’s mega-successful “Batman” feature, a moodier version of the Caped Crusader than audiences had seen on the big screen before. And they loved it.
“Dick Tracy” was all gumdrops and candy canes by comparison, a primary color parade with a rogues gallery of heavily made up gangsters. The solid box office receipts confirmed Beatty’s extended interest in the project, but those sales figures weren’t enough to establish a new franchise.
The film, out now on Blu-ray, looks as glorious as it did back during its theatrical release. Tracy’s canary yellow jacket leaps off the screen, and co-star Madonna’s curves supply the va-va-voom. It’s easier to appreciate the film’s charms today rather than allowing it to stand next to Burton’s psychologically dense portrait of Bruce Wayne’s other half.
Beatty, who also produced and directed, stars as the taciturn detective with that cool wristwatch communicator. He’s on the prowl for “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), the local mob boss looking to expand his empire and squash Tracy at the same time.
As if that weren’t enough for Tracy to juggle, he has to deal with an exasperated sweetie (Glenne Headly, darn near perfect), a nosy foster kid (Charlie Korsmo, same) and the advances of a torch singer (Madonna) who might be the one person to lead Tracy to Big Boy.
“Dick Tracy” gets in a scrap or two along the way, but Beatty the director unwisely speeds up the action to turn those moments into silly, sophomoric battles. He otherwise nails the film’s complicated tone, call it seriously retro. Beatty isn’t mocking the source material, an approach other filmmakers would have easily taken. Instead, he gives it a hearty handshake and lets the good guys win the day.
Beatty was considered too old for the part, but frankly he’s square jawed enough to avoid being a distraction. Madonna turns in a knottier performance, occasionally sprightly and then stiff and unpolished. The screenplay gives her some daffy exchanges with Tracy all the same, snippets that seem both tame and tawdry.
In retrospect, “Dick Tracy” didn’t fit the franchise mold. The period touches work just fine in a one-off production, but how many sugar-coated landscapes could audiences tolerate before they demanded a more nuanced storytelling angle? And could you coax so many big stars to turn in cameos (like Dustin Hoffman’s goofy Mumbles) for a second or third “Tracy” film?
The Blu-ray release arrives without any extras, a shame given the passion Beatty brought to the project as well as the artistry which transformed Chester Gould’s crime fighter into the big leagues.