No one in The Untouchables, either cop or criminal, seems to have anything in the way of a moral code. Their lives are far more existential: the criminal steals because he is a thief, and the cop upholds the law because it is his job to do so. When a reporter asks Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), dedicated defender of Prohibition, what he would do if the government repealed the 18th Amendment, he replies without hesitation" I think I'll have a drink." Until that day, however, "It is the law of the land."
As for everyone caught in-between, life under a system of legislated morality has seemingly divorced individuals from a sense of right and wrong. Ness' efforts to conduct raids on bootleggers fail because of corrupt cops tipping off Al Capone's men in order to get a few drops of the material they're helping to hide. The title refers to the team of uncorrupted policemen Ness and Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery) recruit straight out of police academy to ensure their unblemished records, but it just as well describes Al Capone and his empire, which has such control over the desires of the common American that the boss can openly chat with reporters about bootlegging.
In comparison to the hedonism of Scarface, The Untouchables does not show anyone particularly enjoying the thrill of illegal consumption. Flapper-filled speakeasies seem to be in some other dimension entirely from the world Ness and co. traverse to take down Capone. Those smoky, alcohol-serving dens are in the underworld, but the point here is that the cops need not descend into it to find law-breakers; the most flagrantly criminal people live topsoil. Not only that, they leave in lavish mansions fit for holding the aristocracy at court for the winter.
In such matters, De Palma's attention to detail and suggestion has never been better: period costumes and set design are immaculate, and the director clearly shoots for an accurate representation of the social turmoil caused by Prohibition, not simply in the resulting crime spree but in a skewing of values that led to romanticizing that crime. For example, he immediately juxtaposes the scene of Capone chumming with sympathetic reporters as he assures them he just runs a business and does not use violence with the bombing of a bar that refused to sell Capone's wares, killing everyone inside (including a young girl).
However, De Palma's capacity to let wooden performances go uncorrected has rarely been so apparent. Divorced from his Brechtian satire, De Palma crafts a remarkably straightforward Hollywood picture with The Untouchables, but that only means that the actors have nowhere to hide when one examines their work. Costner, who would go on to convey something resembling human emotion as a crusader in JFK, here barely modulates his voice, speaking in a flat tone even when yelling. Connery, playing an Irish cop, appears to have decided the best approach to the accent would be to speak in his normal voice but occasionally make it a bit more nasal. Thankfully, he only tries to keep up this charade for about five minutes, at which point he simply speaks like Sean Connery, full stop. Only Robert De Niro, who plays Capone like a more unassailable and confident version of the fat Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, puts any effort into this.
De Palma, too, uses little of the prowess so freely on display in his usual style. The film has its share of Steadicam and crane shots, including a first-person roam outside Jimmy's apartment that has all the trappings of the director's voyeuristic, playful élan. But so much of the movie feels stiff, too mannered, as if the starch in everyone's suits bled into them and into the film itself.
This is all the more perplexing given that it was written by David Mamet. Though certainly not as madcap as Oliver Stone, Mamet nevertheless works best as a vulgarian wordsmith with an ear for detail, and only a few isolated moments of wit ever surface. The rest of the time, we get treated to farcical sub-slapstick—"Where's your warrant?" "He's my warrant!" comes the response with a sucker punch that makes the criminal's eyes bug out cartoonishly—that clashes with the somber tone of the rest of the film.
In fairness, the shootouts are fun, even if the famous rip-off of Potemkin's Odessa steps sequence feels like just that, lacking the creativity De Palma usually puts into his quotations. The lead-up to the fight is masterful De Palman suspense, and the actual gunfight in slo-mo is also entertaining, but where Obsession, Dressed to Kill and Body Double warped, inverted and experimented with his love of Hitchcock (to say nothing of minor variations on influences sprinkled throughout his work), this just feels like plagiarism.
I honestly don't know what the point of this movie is. People call Carlito's Way an "apology" for Scarface, but I would point to The Untouchables as the likelier candidate for a direct response to that film. If Scarface dove headfirst into the underworld (and potentially cracked its skull on the bottom), The Untouchables never really ventures anywhere outside the respectable world, but the point De Palma was making carries no weight without seeing how the respectable members of above-ground society are precisely the ones to sink into dens each night to get plastered and dance. The open wealth Capone enjoys is the only hint at the transparent garishness of the wealthy during the Great Depression, a financial catastrophe caused in part both by massive income inequality and the effective second economy created by Prohibition that made men like Capone so wealthy that, when the law cracked down on bootlegging, it collapsed the legitimate economy in addition to the illegal one.
But this is all projection. The Untouchables lives up to its name in that even the director seems reluctant to grab a hold of these people and really throw them into the muck. It runs in the opposite direction of Scarface, presenting a sterile view of crimefighting not even fully alleviated by the presence of blood. De Palma and Mamet do suggest that the characters want to be in a more violent movie, however: when one of the team, Wallace, starts tracking the accounts of every business tied to Capone and suggests getting the mobster on tax evasion, Ness waves him off, unwilling to take down a murderer with a prosaic approach.
After under-performing or flopping with most of his '80s features, The Untouchables proved a much-needed hit for De Palma, though I can't help but lump it with the likes of Wise Guys instead of legitimately good mainstream fare like the director's next film. By the end of the film, Ness has eroded his law-abiding façade, killing an unarmed man and lying to a judge to ensure the outcome he wants in Capone's trial. Had the rest of the film put more effort and care into crafting a moral viewpoint, this downfall would only enhance the irony of Ness' final statement, the aforementioned quip about post-Prohibition what-ifs. As it is, these end-game occurrences are merely the first signs of life after two hours of watching De Palma fuss over everything but what's important. At least it secured him a few large budgets for his next couple of features. When not even an Ennio Morricone can liven your film, you've got problems.