A kid (Charlie Korsmo) sneaks into a warehouse where a group of gangsters are playing poker and is spying on them when suddenly a car roars in, machine gun toting hitmen bundle out and spray the gangsters with bullets. One of them, Flattop (William Forsythe), leaves a message on the wall of the building for the gangsters' biggest enemy, Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty), who at that moment is attending an opera with his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). The police contact him on his wristwatch radio, and he's soon on his way to the scene of the crime. Who could be behind it? None other than Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), a short thug with big dreams of heading his own crime syndicate, by fair means or foul - can Tracy stop him in his tracks and save the city from the largest tide of villainy it has ever faced?
Scripted by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr, Dick Tracy was expected to be one of the most enjoyed blockbusters of its year, but things didn't quite turn out that way. Although all the money it cost was there to be seen on the screen, audiences didn't quite take to its garish thrills for some reason, possibly because of its lacklustre main character. Snappily paced and based on the comic strips of Chester Gould, the film certainly retained the look of its origins, with bright reds, greens, yellows and blues the only colours used to add that dash of authenticity, but meant the period of ninteen-thirties gangster movies seemed distinctly artificial when you were watching it. To add novelty, each part was filled by a big movie star or a cult actor, some of whom played under heavy makeup, all superbly designed. If Dick Tracy was scoring points for its visuals, it would earn full marks.
However, there's the small problem of plot to be taken care of. Big Boy Caprice kidnaps one of his rivals, Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino), and the singer in Lips' nightclub, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), with a view to a takeover bid. Despatching the club owner by covering him with cement and dropping him into the river, Big Boy now has a place to stage his operations and secure some extra cash from the patrons and their illegal gambling habits, with Breathless and her dancers performing every night for their entertainment. Meanwhile, Tracy has troubles with the Kid, trying to look after him and be his father figure as the boy has no parents and no home of his own, in a plotline designed to lighten its leading man and appeal to the younger members of the audience for whom gunning down gangsters would presumably be too intense if played straight.
Those gangsters are where the most fun arises, as a fair few of the actors ham it up with undisguised glee, especially Pacino. His Big Boy loves the sound of his own voice, is ruthlessly ambitious and pretentious with it, firing off half-remembered phrases like "'If you're not for the people, you can't buy the people' - Lincoln". He makes a perfect villain for a comic book, as do the rest of the rogue's gallery, notably Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, a barely intelligible hanger on who knows what's happening but is safe from interrogation because nobody can understand him - or so he thinks. As Breathless, Madonna slinks around the screen apparently dressed for a mobster's funeral, but as usual with her film outings she lacks charisma, most of her allure down to her smart lines or Stephen Sondheim's songs.
But the biggest charisma void surprisingly stems from Beatty's efforts. His Tracy comes across as being unsure of himself, particularly in his attitude to the women in his life; it's that old cliché of being married to his job and having no time for his girlfriend, as Tess mopes about feeling neglected. We know that he is so loyal to her that he will never opt for the charms of Breathless, who has taken a fancy to him, so there are no sparks flying in that relationship either. He even has to be saved by other characters when he gets into a tight corner - the Kid has to rescue him at one point, which undermines his authority. Clean cut, square jawed heroes are all very well, but they should be less complicated for this to be convincing, so subjecting Tracy to doubts is misguided. While Dick Tracy is lavishly designed, and the supporting cast are ideally chosen, its hero is a man out of time and the film suffers for it. Music by Danny Elfman.