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Dick Tracy: Blu-ray + Digital Copy Review

Dick Tracy (1990) movie poster Dick Tracy

Theatrical Release: June 15, 1990 / Running Time: 128 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Warren Beatty / Writers: Jim Cash, Jack Epps, Jr. (screenplay); Chester Gould (characters)

Cast: Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy), Al Pacino (Alphonse "Big Boy" Caprice), Madonna (Breathless Mahoney), Glenne Headly (Tess Trueheart), Charlie Korsmo (Kid), Mandy Patinkin (88 Keys), Dustin Hoffman (Mumbles), William Forsythe (Flattop), R. G. Armstrong (Pruneface), Dick Van Dyke (D.A. Fletcher), Paul Sorvino (Lips Manlis), Charles Durning (Chief Brandon), Seymour Cassel (Sam Catchem), James Keane (Pat Patton), Estelle Parsons (Mrs. Trueheart), Michael J. Pollard (Bug Bailey), Henry Silva (Influence), James Tolkan (Numbers), Ed O'Ross (Itchy), James Caan (Spuds Spaldoni), Kathy Bates (Mrs. Green), Catherine O'Hara (Texie Garcia), Robert Beecher (Ribs Mocca), Allen Garfield (Reporter), John Schuck (Reporter), Charles Fleischer (Reporter), Lawrence Steven Meyers (Little Face), Robert Costanzo (Lips' Bodyguard), Hamilton Camp (Store Clerk), Jack Kehoe (Customer at Raid)

Songs: "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)", "More", "What Can You Lose", "Live Alone and Like It", "Back in Business"

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Disney has a history of trying to imitate their competitors' success. Two years after Star Wars, they gave us The Black Hole. Shortly after the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies struck box office gold,
Disney teamed with Walden Media to make The Chronicles of Narnia. The 2008 family comedy fantasy Bedtime Stories clearly modeled itself after Night at the Museum, the big hit from two Christmases earlier. After Tim Burton's Batman handily topped 1989's charts, Disney aimed for similar results on the following summer's Dick Tracy.

On paper, the two franchises were very similar. Each began with comics in the 1930s and centered on a no-nonsense urban hero challenged by a variety of flamboyant villains. Both universes were tapped for film serial treatment during Hollywood's Golden Age. Both had endured to some degree, although a 1960s Dick Tracy series modeled after the popular (but campy) Adam West "Batman" never made it beyond a pilot. Still, Tracy could be found fighting crime in newspapers, comic books, and syndicated cartoons when the 1990 film started to take shape.

Dick Tracy was championed by Warren Beatty, who first wanted to make the movie back in 1975. Film rights passed from studio to studio, with various writers, directors, and stars attached at different points. Beatty would end up producing, directing, and starring in the movie, utilizing a script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr., a team behind such films as Top Gun, The Secret of My Success, and Turner & Hooch. This would be Beatty's third time at the helm, following the hit comedy Heaven Can Wait and the Russian Revolution epic Reds. Quite different from both of those, Dick Tracy would continue Beatty's streak of Oscar wins, though this time he personally wouldn't receive even a nomination.

Warren Beatty dons a yellow fedora and trench coat as comic strip detective Dick Tracy. Al Pacino dons a prosthetic nose, chin, and mole for his Oscar-nominated, somewhat career-reviving turn as crime boss Al "Big Boy" Caprice.

Police detective Dick Tracy (Beatty) follows his gut more than protocol, but he does his best to protect his unnamed metropolis from the many purveyors of organized crime. Tracy has a loyal girlfriend in Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), who's anxious for him to pop the question but somewhat willing to accept that his job comes first. He also picks up a kid with no name other than "Kid" (Charlie Korsmo, making the first of his three big movie appearances from 1990-91), a streetwise, always-hungry orphaned urchin he looks after for the time being.

Tracy's work eats into his time with Tess and the Kid, because the city's criminals are planning something big. Al "Big Boy" Caprice (Al Pacino), a mob boss with a hand in every racket known to man, proposes that his fellow rogues unionize with him to work in tandem and share in the profits of every criminal act. True to the comic strip, these villains are boldly drawn with appearances or personalities that match their names: the wrinkled Pruneface (R. G. Armstrong), the large-headed Little Face (Lawrence Steven Meyers), Flattop (William Forsythe), accountant Numbers (James Tolkan), pianist 88 Keys (Mandy Patinkin), the nearly indecipherable Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), and so on. With even the district attorney (Dick Van Dyke) on their side, Big Boy sees Tracy as the infuriating only threat to their operations. Knowing that blame for any strike on Tracy will fall on him, though, Big Boy discourages a quick kill.

Meanwhile, Big Boy's newest moll, the lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), has eyes for Tracy, but, fearing her life, is reluctant to testify against her boss. Things take a turn for the worse when Tracy is framed by a faceless figure for the D.A.'s murder and thrown in jail, allowing crime to prosper in his absence.

As the moll Breathless Mahoney, Madonna performs most of the original songs penned by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. The Kid (Charlie Korsmo) doesn't have a name, but he sure has an appetite.

The parallels between Batman and Dick Tracy extend beyond timing and origins. The two each rely on a blonde femme fatale and a classic actor portraying an over-the-top villain
(in Pacino's case, this unlikely performance would lay the groundwork for his volcanic turns in films like Scent of a Woman, Heat, and The Devil's Advocate). There was art design that relied heavily on the old school technique of matte paintings (Tracy's partly done by Harrison Ellenshaw, a sci-fi veteran following in the footsteps of his father, Mary Poppins Oscar winner Peter). There were even similar sounding Danny Elfman scores and the images of the hero crashing through a skylight. While it's true that Dick Tracy wrapped filming right when Batman opened in theaters, these two movies were too big for all of these similarities to occur by sheer coincidence.

Batman's huge commercial success opened Dick Tracy up to inevitable comparisons and even if Burton's franchise launcher isn't nearly as good as childhood memories have influenced many to claim, it still is a little more compelling than Beatty's film.

Beatty possesses clear fondness for the material, which made its newspaper debut six years before he was born. The general public did not seem to share his enthusiasm, certainly not by 1990 and not the younger demographics so essential to films' success. No matter how true to the comic strips it may be, the film's broad brush strokes yield an atmosphere of ridiculousness, from grotesquely made-up antagonists to a one-dimensional hero. Though full of gunplay and deadly criminals (content that may have led Disney to use its more adult Touchstone Pictures banner), the colorful film still looks like a live-action cartoon. Perhaps the hope was that both the kids of the day and their parents who grew up on the comic strip could find common ground and enjoy this. But especially now, the film feels too childish for adults and too dark and violent for children.

Today's adults should still find the film sufficiently interesting, with its bold design and deep cast of movie stars. Being a kid when this was released may help some, but this isn't the formative generation-uniting film experience that has helped to elevate the status of contemporaries like Home Alone or even Hook. I should know. This was one of the few films I saw in theaters back then and I have clear memories of going to stores and asking if they had "Dick Tracy cards" (the collectible trading variety), often to clerk bewilderment. And yet, the power of nostalgia does nothing to make me consider this more than a moderately enjoyable time. Family films of the early '90s are already old enough to have a distinct sensibility and one that doesn't always play well today.

Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) and fellow cops crash Big Boy's (Al Pacino) club during a Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) performance.

Dick Tracy doesn't so much feel like a product of its time as something that wanted to be timely and relevant. The rarely-working Beatty was in no place to know what the public wanted; his last time in front of the camera had been the epic bomb Ishtar. And while the whole imitating success thing worked for Disney on Narnia (for the first film, that is), the other attempts have proven that something vaguely resembling a big hit rarely produces the impact and enjoyment of that model blockbuster. Hence, the lack of demand for sequels to Black Hole, Bedtime Stories, Dick Tracy, and the Home Alone-esque Blank Check.

Dick Tracy was no Batman at the box office, but it narrowly managed to gross over $100 million, one of only nine films to do so that year. Impressively, it went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations, the most drawn by any Disney movie since Mary Poppins earned thirteen nods back in 1964. With the exception of Pacino's supporting actor nomination (his first Oscar attention since the 1970s), the movie only competed in minor categories, most of them technical in nature.
Still, it won three: Best Original Song, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Makeup. Despite those honors, the movie received mixed reviews and even the children who grew up with it are reluctant to exalt it as a great movie, as the unspectacular 6.0 average user rating on IMDb shows.

Nonetheless, as one of the bigger films in modern Disney history, Dick Tracy seemed to warrant more than the barebones DVD treatment fans had to wait until 2002 for it to receive. Rumors cropped up about a deluxe edition coming under Disney's short-lived Vista Series banner. Those never materialized, however, and on Tuesday, the film makes its Blu-ray debut still accompanied by no bonus features, unless you count a digital copy. Beatty announced the high definition plans 18 months ago along with plans for a Dick Tracy sequel that sound dubious at best.

Dick Tracy Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Russian), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian
Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Suggested Retail Price: $26.50
Two single-sided discs (BD-50 & DVD-5 DVD-ROM)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Cardboard Slipcover
Still available on DVD ($9.99 SRP; April 2, 2002)

VIDEO and AUDIO

As on DVD, Dick Tracy is treated to exemplary picture and sound. The 1.85:1 video is sharp, vibrant, and nearly spotless. You can question whether the colors are as saturated as they should be, but the results are definitely great. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio delights as well. Disney's first completely digital soundtrack, this one brims with life from performances of original Stephen Sondheim songs to commanding effects like explosions and Tommy gun rounds. The film makes a fine leap to high definition, the presentation taking advantage of the higher resolution and less compression while leaving almost no room for improvement. Though the case doesn't mention them, the Blu-ray includes a Russian dub and subtitles and Portuguese subtitles in addition to the standard French and Spanish language options.

Dick Tracy's city is brought to life with liberal use of matte paintings.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

As stated above, the only bonus feature is a digital copy, which adds to the list price but probably not your enjoyment.

The Blu-ray opens with an Oz: The Great and Powerful trailer,
video ads for "Castle": The Complete Fourth Season and Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, and an anti-smoking spot. The menu's Sneak Peeks listing repeats those first three, followed by ads for ABC dramas and the Mary Poppins Broadway musical. Dick Tracy's original trailer remains absent.

The plain menu plays score over the 5-color poster/cover art. The disc does not support bookmarks, does not resume playback, and doesn't even remember where you left off during the movie. It's nearly 2013 and yet one of the biggest studios of all still can't get that simple technology down pat.

The side-snapped keepcase is topped by a cardboard slipcover repeating the artwork behind it. The lone insert supplies directions and a unique activation code for the digital copy disc it covers. That digital copy disc holds the movie in one iTunes and two Windows Media formats for disc-less computer and device viewing.

Kid (Charlie Korsmo) gets to leave his orphanage to visit Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) in jail.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Dick Tracy falls short of the great crowd-pleasing entertainment and Batman-sized hit it set out to be, but such a bold, ambitious production deserves to be seen. There is plenty to like, too, from Pacino's unabashedly hammy turn to the faithful live-action rendering of a bold comic strip world. It just doesn't add up to anything superb or easy to recommend.

It is absurd that a film of this size continues to get nothing in the way of extras, but that is apparently per Warren Beatty's wishes. Beatty has fought to hang onto rights to the character, even going so far as to make a lawsuit-prompting half-hour television special in 2010 that finally premiered on TCM over the summer. Seems like if that wasn't the "slapdash" and "selfish" charade that Tribune Media Services claimed it to be, it would have been included here along with deleted scenes (Beatty has confirmed that he cut a half-hour to appease Disney executives) and production publicity materials.

Alas, Dick Tracy looking and sounding its best since theatrical release will still be enough for some to pay the $20 asking price.

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Reviewed December 7, 2012.



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