When most people mention Dick Tracy they usually talk about style over substance. And yeah, they're right, the film is lightweight, and yes the production design and cinematography does take precedence over story and characterisation, but when the surface is as good as it is in this, I'm able to forgive the film's numerous shortcomings.
What I enjoy most about Dick Tracy, rather obviously, is its visual sense. It really does capture the feeling of a comic, throwing dreary reality out of the window. And although the fabulous use of colour usually gets the most attention, I enjoy the photography more – there are some absolutely wonderful deep focus shots in the film that frame the action perfectly like a live comic book. And I also love the cityscapes and the matte shots – they never look remotely real, but that's not the point, they're just meant to look gorgeous...which they do.
Of course, with so much attention focused on the look of the film, it would be easy for the characters to get lost in the mix. And while the film never really provides us with any real meat to sink our teeth into, it does provide us with an enjoyably understated hero and a likable heroine. And the film, curiously enough, in its relationship between Tracy (Warren Beatty) and Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), actually has quite a bit of heart. Their scenes, far from being an annoying distraction, prove to be some of the best.
Far less enjoyable are the scenes between Tracy and Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). They're meant to be sexy, but Madonna can't act, so they become rather tiresome. And it's notable that of the two female characters, the supposed Plain Jane Tess Trueheart actually comes across as sexier – Madonna comes across as a whining Barbie doll with a bad haircut, while Headly has a bit of zip to her.
I also dislike some of the songs that are used in the film. A couple are integrated in a way that doesn't annoy, but there's a particularly loathsome duet between Madonna and her piano player that grates. However, there is one rather fabulous musical scene that sees Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) leading the rehearsals in the nightclub he's taken over. He sings, he dances and he abuses the singers, and just when you think he's satisfied, he tells everyone to start over from the beginning. And then when the piano player starts moaning, he slams the lid down on his fingers. It's obvious Pacino is having a lot of fun with the role. (In the same scene he also gets to slap Madonna, which must be something that a lot of people secretly wish they could do.)
And Pacino is great value throughout the whole of the film. He realises that the film isn't one that requires understatement, so we get treated to the shouty Al Pacino, the one that's turned up to 11. And although that shouty Al Pacino, rather unfortunately, has cannibalised the more understated one in recent years, here it's a complete joy.
I think my favourite Pacino moment in the film has to be after he kidnaps Tess Trueheart. He talks quite calmly and then he suddenly starts shouting. I don't know why, but it really makes me laugh. And he does this a couple of times. "It's not so much that I have to hurt someone, it's just...DON'T MAKE ME DO IT!" And then there's the bit where he says he's having a thought and the bit where he says he loves Tess (while he's preparing to kill her). Pacino is just wonderfully dumb in the role. (Another little Pacino bit that I love is the almost imperceptible jig he makes as he's trying to escape by jumping over a bridge. And I also crack up at the schizophrenic anger that bubbles to the surface when he realises he can't escape. "You'll pay for this! You're gonna pay for this!")
Another fun performance is from Dustin Hoffman. All he does is mumble, but like Pacino he overacts like crazy, therefore making a tiny role memorable.
In light of this, and all the other grotesques that fill the film, it would be easy for Beatty to go unnoticed, but he's actually rather good in the thankless role of the straightforward hero. He never makes a simple character seem bland. Part of this is because of his excellent chemistry with Glenne Headly, but part of it is because of the scenes with Madonna; sure she can't act, but knowing what a horny bastard Beatty is in real life, you half expect him to give Tess the elbow. And Beatty also injects humour into his role and, once or twice, manages to achieve some emotion – the scenes with Tess are always bittersweet, but there are also a couple of nice exchanges with the Kid.
And although the film isn't exactly action packed, and although the final sequence is a typical damsel in distress type deal, Beatty's film does at least feature some heavy Tommy gun action, which is always welcome (I love the way no one has to reload their guns). And speaking of action, it is at times incredibly violent. Indeed, the final shoot-out, while bloodless, is a massacre. But this isn't a criticism. The violence is exactly as cartoony as it should be.
And I really think that for all its faults, Dick Tracy is one of the best comic book films out there. Sure it's shallow, but that's the point – as full of colour as the film is, the morality is black and white; complexity has been eschewed in favour of fun. And I really think the film is one hell of a good time.