Directed by a “for hire” Brian De Palma from a David Mamet script, The Untouchables is a violent, masculine, swaggering recreation of Al Capone and his bootlegging industry. And—surprise, surprise—Prohibition-era Chicago had almost no women. Mamet accentuates this absence of femininity by having cop Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) decide to fight organized crime when a grieving mother tearfully visits him after her daughter is killed in an explosion caused by a Capone goon. In essence, he lets the gravity of Ness’s awakening rest on the mere oddness accorded the presence of a woman.
Ness collects a small bunch of would-be vigilante cops (vigilante in the sense that since the rest of the force is corruptly suckling on the teat of organized crime payouts, their righteousness could be considered transgressive) and vows to bring down the ever-boastful Capone (overplayed by Robert De Niro, perhaps the moment when he became a parody of himself). Included in his motley collective are the worldly Jim Malone (Sean Connery), bookwormy Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and “George Stone” (actually Giuseppe Petri, played by Andy Garcia in probably the film’s only performance whose stand-offishness is sensual rather than temperamental).
Mamet provides the dependable theatrical flourishes (and I mean that in the straightest way possible), such as the way Malone’s incessant anti-Wop racism, which in the course of the movie stands in as an extension of his ultra-commanding bluster-cum-professionalism, ultimately leads him blindly into a setup. But his vanilla-smooth narrative verve never lets audiences soak in De Palma’s trademark set pieces. And the only moment where he does—the notorious (and supposedly improvised on set) Battleship Potemkin homage—is rendered utterly facile and irrelevant as a result. (What, indeed, do government sanctioned genocide and socialist uprisings have to do with nabbing a witness to testify exactly?)
Al Capone’s final words to Ness in the tumultuous courtroom finale are: “You’re nothing but a lot of talk and a badge.” Mamet must’ve been particularly fond of this insult, as De Niro throws it out a few times during the course of the film. When you consider that The Untouchables is frequently cited as one of the great ‘80s films, when other genuinely personal De Palma films like Body Double and Casualties of War are casualties of indifference, Capone’s line becomes axiomatic. Steeped in De Palma’s glorious violence and sinuous cinematography, but stripped of his tricky sensuality and his anarchic self-reflective wit, The Untouchables boils down to a lot of talk (i.e. those baseball metaphors), validated in the eyes of fanboy jocks by its badge of machismo.