The year is 1930 and there's a war going on in Chicago between rival factions who wish to control the supply of illegal alcohol during the Prohibition-era ban. The most powerful gang leader is Al Capone (Robert De Niro), a man satisfied that he will never be taken down by the law because he believes he is too clever for them. Nevertheless, the police are on to him, and amidst the bribery that turns a blind eye to his criminality emerges one man, Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), determined that the killing ends now - yet Capone is in a far more powerful position than he is...
The Untouchables, loosely adapted from the classic television series, was a big favourite among movie audiences in 1987 who responded to what was essentially one of the era's action movies performed in period costume. However, this was no Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in thirties Chicago, as it has the benefit of Brian De Palma's direction at its most stylish and confident, and a script by David Mamet that perfectly suited its story and characters, some of whom were drawn from real life. But do not mistake this film for an accurate document of those days: this was strictly the cops and gangsters of the movies we were being presented with.
And of course, if any director knows the right films to reference and influence him it was De Palma. Here it was as if the filmmakers of the classic hoodlum movies of the time this was depicting had been transported to the eighties and given carte blanche to make the purest thriller experience they could based on the genre they knew. As filtered through De Palma's sensibilities, the result was tense, colourful and a pleasure to watch for any fans of the most accomplished of its type, with sequences evoking not only films like Howard Hawks' Scarface or The Roaring Twenties, but also more obscure works such as Nicholas Ray's Party Girl when Capone takes a baseball bat to one errant underling.
And not only that, for as the scenes where Ness takes his newly assembled team - called The Untouchables because they are immune to bribery - out to the border illustrate, this was in some ways a western in alternative dress. One of the most enjoyable themes is that we are in no doubt who is a good guy and who is bad, and our faith in the decency of the four heroes is unshakeable. They include Charles Martin Smith as the accountant who notices that there are deep inconsistencies in Capone's tax payments, Andy Garcia as the sharp-shooting Italian there to show us that not all his countrymen are bad, and the scene stealer: Sean Connery as beat cop Malone.
Connery won an Oscar for his role, and provides a jolt of electricity in his playing as Malone shows Ness he will have to fight dirty when push comes to shove if he wants to defeat Capone. It is he who brings hope to a world where it appears as if the battle against crime has been lost, as he is the embodiment of St Jude, the patron saint of hopless causes, driving the team on even to the risk of their own lives. Contrast him with De Niro's splendidly loathsome Capone, a smug and despicable mobster who we're itching to see brought down - it's a pity he and Connery don't share any scenes, although the screen might not be able to take that much forceful personality. Costner's Ness is a curious hero, humourless and by the book, but the pillar of righteousness the film needs nevertheless. With vivid lines and setups such as the railway station shootout, De Palma and his team brought both brutality and class to one of the finest thrillers of the decade. Music by Ennio Morricone, which has him at the top of his game.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.