Cinema: Extra! Tracy's Tops

Tracy's Tops Warren Beatty creates the best comic-strip movie yet

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The story has Tracy (Beatty) and his long-suffering sweetie, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), informally adopting a tough street urchin, the Kid (Charlie Korsmo). In their separate, winning ways, Tess and the Kid are conspiring to settle Dick down, while Big Boy and his gang are aiming to blow Tracy up. Also in pursuit of the yellow-raincoated one is Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), a chanteuse at Big Boy's nightclub. In her music career Madonna has remade herself so many times she could be called Star Trek VI. But she has had trouble adapting to film; 20th Century Fox Chairman Barry Diller has called her "a movie star without a movie." Now she has one, and she is a knockout: sexy and wily, a bracing blend of Marilyn Monroe and Jessica Rabbit.

Beatty populates his large canvas with familiar actors whom the audience will have fun trying to spot under the makeup. Why, there's Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, spitting out an unintelligible confession and addling the police stenographer. There's Paul Sorvino as Lips Manlis, with an Edward G. Robinson scowl frozen on his face. William Forsythe is the literally level-headed Flattop, with a mug like an amalgam of all the Bowery Boys. Dick Tracy finds its equipoise in the tension between the extravagance of these featured players and the realistic playing of the lead roles. The picture moves at will from deliriously farcical to seriously romantic and never loses its balance.

Anxious parents should be pleased by Dick Tracy. It can rev up the underworld violence -- tommy guns drilling vintage autos -- without spilling much blood. Dozens get killed, but nobody gets hurt; the movie is a gangland ballet, as stylized as the Girl Hunt number in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (which Beatty's film also resembles in the climactic plot twist). Though Tracy packs a wallop, it's mostly in long shot.

This is comic-strip art, a flip-book of impudent images that is faithful in detail to Gould's boisterous graphics. The film frame plays with perspective, a champagne glass filling the foreground while a moll in widow's weeds recedes into the distance. The colors are, of course, Sunday-funnies bold; they dominate the screen as Gould's colors bled from the rotogravure. The film also obliges the comic by turning everything generic; it strips the brand names off chili cans, car hoods, newspaper logos, theater marquees, hotel facades -- even U.S. currency, which bears just a huge dollar sign.

But this is 1990, not 1931 (when the strip first appeared in the Detroit Mirror) or 1938 (the more-or-less date for the film). These days everything is ironic, everything is in quotes. This Dick Tracy is as knowing as a Roy Lichtenstein Pop art painting of a comic strip. Still, Beatty manages to honor the conventions of the '30s -- as in the dazzling montages that propel the story through its zippy 105 minutes -- and the imperatives of filmmaking in the '90s. "We were after a generic apple pie," says designer Sylbert. "A small, simple, extraordinarily American statement about a guy who says, 'Stick 'em up.' "

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