If the press talks more about which actress the star is sleeping with than about the content of the movie, you’re probably in trouble. And sure enough, this is a terrible movie. This is an example of how the choices between realism and comic-book-ism can all go wrong, for reasons having nothing to do with budget. The parts of the movie that are supposed to be gritty and lifelike (the Dick Tracy character was inspired by the real-life Eliot Ness, after all) are made as artificial as a dance number from West Side Story among pink garbage cans. The visual look is made deliberately fake and comicful, with lots of primary colors. (It won an Oscar for art/set design!) The money has giant dollar signs on the bills, and even the sun and the moon are always fake. Meanwhile, the screenplay throws in crap that’s out of place in the comic world, like Tracy’s abuse of prisoners’ legal rights and the excessively skanky double entendres from Madonna’s character.
Madonna makes a dismally poor femme fatale, of course. She isn’t even interesting when she sings, which she is given far too much time to do. (Oscar for best song! Ah well, Best Song songs are supposed to suck.) And one can’t help but wonder if she pulled a Mae West and insisted that an unattractive actress be cast as Tess Truehart, who in the source material is supposed to be beautiful. She certainly does have one trait in common with Mae West — and I mean Mae West circa 1970, not 1935: when she starts dropping a lot of suggestive dialog, you’re more likely to shudder than to get sweaty.
And for that matter, Warren Beatty doesn’t make a very good tough guy. In fact, his whole performance is surprisingly piss-poor, considering that the whole film arose out of Beatty’s own fandom of the comic strip. When the kid actor (Charlie Korsmo) gives what might be the best performance in the movie, you’re not off to a good start.
The decision to put all the deformed mutant villains into a single film, as a rogue’s gallery of weird facial prostheses (Oscar for best makeup!), pretty much ruins the believability of any of them, despite the big name actors in many parts, like Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles — who is pretty damn funny, actually, but only has about two minutes on screen — and Al Pacino (Oscar nominated as supporting actor) as the chief crook. And VHS rental copies are contaminated by this trick where in some scenes the background flickers from lighter to darker at a rate of about 1.3 Hz — apparently a variation on the Macrovision® copy-defection system, only more intrusive and offensive than usual. The effect, oddly, is as if they were trying to suggest some of the flickeriness of really old movies, in order to lend it more ’30s ambiance. I found this very annoying. In fact, that pretty much sums up the viewer’s overall emotional experience of the film: annoyance. In short, this movie sucks.
I wrote much of the above before reaching the film’s half-way point. (I found it hard to sit through this movie without taking frequent breaks.) I didn’t have to change much after the end, except for this: they came up with a pretty decent surprise twist at the climax. The second half in general is better than the first, but still, I originally rated this at only half a cape. I only promoted it to one cape after an unexpected number of films even worse than this one started to fill up the bottom of my rankings... Barb Wire was the last straw. Like I said in the rating system page, I’m grading on the curve here.