Dick Tracy (1990)

I’m often reminded of Otto Preminger’s bizarre 1968 film – slash – trainwreck Skidoo, in which the director decided to make a movie that would be hip with the kids, and filled it full of people like George Raft and Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason. I wonder whether the nineteen and twenty year-olds of 1968 heard about such a thing and concluded that nothing else could possibly be so far out of touch as Hollywood, that year. Because in 1990, that’s precisely how nineteen year-old me felt when news of Dick Tracy‘s imminent release reached me. It felt like Hollywood was so desperate for the next Batman that a bunch of eighty year-old men asked the air, “What else is a comic book? What do kids read? Dick Tracy, yeah, that’s the ticket!” and filled their cash-in with such popular-with-kids actors as Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman.

I mean, seriously, in 1990, exactly five people on the planet gave a damn about Dick Tracy. One was Tribune Media’s accountant and the other four were Max Allan Collins.

And yet, while Skidoo is almost hypnotic in its strange, dull awfulness, Dick Tracy turned out to be a surprisingly good film, full of offbeat performances, an occasionally very clever script, and some of the most gorgeous color and cinematography of anything else in its day. You can watch Dick Tracy with the sound down and fall completely in love with it. I really like the unreal color palette and the remarkable symmetry in the framing.

So even though Dick Tracy‘s world is an unreal one, it’s a believable one because it’s so consistent. The visuals are pared down to basics, just like an artist might do in a small comic panel. So instead of a detail-packed label on a can of chili, full of words and pictures, it’s just a red can with “CHILI” in black letters. A milk truck doesn’t deliver for any specific dairy with a logo, it’s just a white truck with “MILK” on the side. Everything’s told with broad strokes, but it’s told beautifully.

Our son liked it a lot as well. I wouldn’t claim that he loved it – I wouldn’t go that far myself – but it’s full of weird and grotesque villains, a believably fun hero, a heck of a lot of machine guns, and a few very interesting twists in the script. Plus there’s a shot where Dick Tracy punches an entire crowd and they go down like ninepins. Warren Beatty may be in the center of almost every frame where he appears, but Al Pacino, William Forysthe, Paul Sorvino, and especially Dustin Hoffman effortlessly steal their scenes from our hero, as the best baddies should. Mandy Patinkin and Dick Van Dyke are also here, with comparative subtlety, so there’s a lot for people who love watching actors to enjoy. On the other hand, Danny Elfman’s music is bombastic and incredibly annoying, and you can’t help but wish that Tess Trueheart wasn’t so helpless and passive.

Speaking of Hoffman, he kind of stole the audience’s attention when I first saw this movie as well as this morning. He plays one of the henchmen, a purple-suited dude called Mumbles. That first time, after the audience chuckled and guffawed through his interrogation scene, the crowd absolutely roared when Tracy confronts him again later on. Tracy and his men storm into his room, saying “Hello, Mumbles,” and the dozens of people I saw it with went completely nuts. It was one of the best little movie theater moments ever. And this morning, our son made one of his uncommon interruptions to protest “I don’t sound like that when I mumble!” And I said “You do.”

So yes, it’s a much, much better film than Skidoo. But I still want a Blu-ray of Skidoo from Criterion, and I might even watch it more often than I would ever watch this, because I contradict myself, and contain multitudes.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Around these parts, the late comic artist Dave Stevens is best remembered for two things. The one you can’t have known about was providing the cover of a notorious issue of Eclipse Comics’ DNAgents that featured the sexy female lead in her underwear posing like a classic pinup. I bought that issue when I was in high school, didn’t think twice about whether I might need to discreetly put the other three or four comics I bought on the top of the stack, and suffered the wrath of my outraged mother for the better part of a month after she saw it. Knowing a good thing, Eclipse issued the cover as a poster. I may have had a cheesecake photo or two on my wall as a teenager, but even I wasn’t so dumb as to buy that poster.

The other thing is, of course, creating the throwback superhero the Rocketeer, although he did surprisingly little with a character that ended up as the star of a big, fun, Disney adventure film. There’s honestly not a lot of Stevens Rocketeer work in print, which kind of reminds me of how very little Steve Ditko Hawk & Dove there is. Stevens created the project as a love letter to icons from his youth like the Rocket Men from Republic’s adventure serials, Rondo Hatton, Bettie Page. I gave our son a quick visual rundown of the three last night, selecting a nice, tame picture of Bettie, nothing as envelope-pushing as that DNAgents cover, and he went to bed very, very skeptical about this movie.

So of course he enjoyed the heck out of it once it got going. It’s a very good adventure film full of explosions, stunts, and gunfights. It was directed by Joe Johnston, a director whose work I really enjoy, and he brought some terrific performances and energy to a really fine and tight script. I think the only flaw in the film is that it needs an establishing shot of the Hollywoodland sign early on, before the last four letters get abruptly blown up in the end. It stars Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly as the leads, with Timothy Dalton as the villain, and a powerhouse assortment of great character actors from the period, including Alan Arkin, Eddie Jones, Terry O’Quinn, Jon Polito, and Paul Sorvino, backing them.

It’s surprising that a film this good was made in the era it was. Thirty years ago, movies based on comic books were uncommon and largely awful, and the Rocketeer was hardly a household name. He – I mean she – may become one before much longer, though. One of the Disney channels has a new cartoon starring Cliff Secord’s great granddaughter as the modern Rocketeer. She could be the next Doc McStuffins! But I like the low-tech and throwback charm of this movie, with G-men and gangsters and Nazi saboteurs and Hollywood royalty and restaurants in buildings that look like bulldogs. It’s even got Howard Hughes in it! I’ve explained the Howard Hughes analogues that we’ve seen in this blog to our son before, in episodes of The Bionic Woman and The Ghosts of Motley Hall, but this is the first time the actual historical figure is a character in the narrative!

I paused the movie early on to make a point with our son. He was rewatching 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters last night, and we talked about how I’m just not as wowed by modern special effects as what they did in older movies. There are certainly some very interesting shots and compositions in the monster movie – Ghidrah’s reveal is breathtaking, and better than his introduction in any classic Toho film – but when everything amazing is done on computers, there’s less of a wow factor for me. There’s a bit early on in The Rocketeer when Cliff lands a tiny one-seater plane without landing gear, on fire, on a dirt track runway. I am more impressed with what the special effects team and stuntmen accomplished under the hot California sun that afternoon than I am anything in any modern Godzilla movie. I hope one day he’ll agree.

I do have a couple of minor complaints about the product we watched. I picked up the DVD from the era when they were advertising DisneyMovieRewards.com on everything, and firstly, the transfer is downright godawful, very soft and artifacty. And it doesn’t have a very, very good 40-second teaser trailer that you used to see, with the letters in “rocketeer” punctuating some very quick cuts of the action; it has one of those “spoil everything” trailers, for a film you now need not see. I’m tempted to upgrade this to a better Blu-ray edition. It’s a good film that deserves a good home media experience.