"So much violence," murmurs Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) as he cleans out his desk at the end of The Untouchables.
A truer, sadder sigh has never escaped from a movie sound track. He has, after prodigies of bloodshed and the loss of precious friends and values, fulfilled the classic destiny of a movie hero. Garbed in a mysterious, often near comical purity, he has arrived in a profoundly corrupted community and, by imposing his eerie conscientiousness on it, awakened its conscience. Now the city is at peace, in part because Ness has taken upon himself some of its wickedness. Or, as he puts it, "I have become what I beheld, and I am content that I have done right."
The Untouchables is not a realistic recreation of Chicago during Prohibition. Nor is it a typical effort from Brian De Palma, who has often put his awesome technique and his admirable sense of film history to trashy (Dressed to Kill) or trivial (Wise Guys) ends. Instead, it goes to that place that all films aspiring to greatness must attain: the country of myth, where all the figures must be larger and more vivid than life.
We might therefore join De Palma and Screenwriter David Mamet in a prayer that their epic work -- a masterpiece of idiomatic American moviemaking as well as a plangent commentary on its traditions -- will be spared from the literalists, complaining both that the gore is too real and that the characters are not real enough. Protect them as well from the wrath of the traditionalists, who resist the intrusion of originality on their passion for the endless restatement of stale generic conventions. Deliver them instead to the audience that will be galvanized, as the filmmakers were, by the chance to reimagine all the cliches of crime fiction.
Begin with Al Capone, from whom all factual and fictional descendants have learned some of the elements of style. But skip all that gangster-as-tragic- hero stuff. In Robert De Niro's grandly scaled performance he is demonically expansive, our first thug celebrity. And a man who in his secret life, the life his romanticizing fans did not want to hear about, illustrates a lecture on teamwork by taking a Ruthian clout at a traitorous underling's skull with a baseball bat. What he evokes, finally, is pure horror (and maybe some black humor) but -- and the film is rigorous on this point -- no sympathy.
Ness is even more radically redefined. Mamet says he sees him as a lone town tamer of Western legend. De Palma has evoked the name of John Ford to suggest the classic qualities he was aiming for. And Costner has something of the grave beauty Gary Cooper used to bring to these roles.
But he is something more than the Western hero transplanted to the city's wilderness. He is not a detached solitary; he is a family man, pleased when his wife tucks a love note into his brown-bag lunch, careful to include both an Eskimo and a butterfly kiss in his little daughter's good-night ritual. Nor is he a man who has educated himself along the trail; instead, he proudly asserts his learning through the punctilious formalities of his manner and diction. Indeed, he is a man whose survival (and killer) instincts are in dire need of on-the-job training and support.