As silly, gaudy and drawn out the Ocean’s franchise had gotten by its third outing, I still somewhat enjoyed Ocean’s Thirteen, an overblown attempt to keep the magic alive that most of the time trips over its own bells and whistles. That being said, the gang is all there, and that alone is good for some laughs. This time around, Eliott Gould’s cranky charmer Reuben has been ousted from his Vegas property by Willie Bank (Al Pacino) a ruthless and ludicrously rich casino tycoon with big plans for the future. Reuben is left in a dazed depression, and the gang all drifts back together to try and rob the hell out of Pacino, using methods and cons so over the top they almost seem like a parody of the former films. Pacino is a bit more clownish than Andy Garcia’s grim Terry Benedict was in the first film, which adds to the cavalier absence of any sense of real danger. In fact, Benedict is now chummy with the gang himself, which is a cute turn of events but kind of seems to silly. Ellen Barkin adds a lot of class as Pacino’s head honcho, fitting into the Ocean world nicely. The gang I’d all back and more eccentric than ever, with Matt Damon scoring comedic points in one of the funniest prosthetic jobs I’ve ever seen. Newcomers to the show include Julian Sands, Oprah Winfrey and a reliably hapless David Paymer. It’s not that this one takes the formula too far, it’s just that we’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt and there was really not much need for it. I won’t say no though, because the blue print of what made the first so fun is still there, it’s just been jazzed up and adorned with a few too many gilded sequins and fancy jib jab. Still enjoyable.
After the commercial failures of Full Frontal and Solaris in 2002, there was pressure on Steven Soderbergh when he announced that his next film was to be the sequel to the wildly successful Ocean’s Eleven (2001), to not only come up with a box office hit but to also outperform the previous film. With big budget, star-studded casts like the one in Ocean’s Twelve (2004), there is always the danger of having them look too smug and self-indulgent instead of having fun along with the audience. Ocean’s Eleven managed to straddle this line quite well, resulting in an entertaining popcorn movie. Soderbergh kept his cast in check, never letting them go too far over-the-top and shooting it with a style that was always interesting to watch. The big question for the sequel was if he could pull off the same feat without repeating himself too much. Ocean’s Twelve ended making less than its predecessor (but still a lot of money) and cost more while also dividing critics but in some ways I find it a better film.
Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is supposed to be retired and enjoying domestic bliss with Tess (Julia Roberts). However, old habits die-hard and the lure of pulling heists is always calling. She catches him casing a jewelry story on their anniversary. To make matters worse, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) is still hot on their trail, tracking down all of the original eleven and letting them know, in his own casually menacing way, that he wants the $160 million, plus interest, that they stole from him in Ocean’s Eleven, and in two weeks time. The montage of him doing this mirrors the one in the first film where Danny and Rusty recruited their crew. If Benedict was an imposing figure in the first film, Andy Garcia makes him even more of a threatening presence in this montage by doing little except exude menace with his eyes and the all-business tone of his voice.
So, Danny gets everybody back together to figure out what to do. Obviously, they need to pull another job but they are too high profile in the United States, so they go to Europe and cross paths with a truly formidable opponent and rival master thief known as the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), a bored French playboy. He’s jealous of Danny’s status as the world’s greatest thief and is out to prove that he’s the best by having the both of them go after the same thing: the Faberge Imperial Coronation egg. Vincent Cassel plays the Night Fox as an ultra-confident, cocky man in such a way that you want to see Danny and company knock him down a peg.
Ocean’s Twelve ups the difficulty level for our heroes even more by having most of the crew neutralized leaving only Basher (Don Cheadle), Linus (Matt Damon) and Virgil (Scott Caan) left to pull off an impossible heist. So, they bring in Tess to pose as, well, Julia Roberts. Unfortunately, another major movie star is staying at the same hotel, which only adds to the meta aspect. Said movie star gamely plays a fictional version of himself. The scene where he meets Tess as Julia Roberts is very amusing as Damon and Roberts act all star-struck in front of him. It is also interesting in that the meta aspect that was present in Ocean’s Eleven is made even more explicit – something that turned off some critics and audiences but I think works extremely well because Soderbergh isn’t having a cutesy cameo of a movie star for the sake of it but actually incorporating them into the plot and making them an integral part of the scam.
If the first film was about Danny’s redemption by reconciling with Tess, then Ocean’s Twelve is about Rusty’s (Brad Pitt) redemption by reconciling with his past love, Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a determined and quite beautiful Interpol agent. Like Danny’s feelings for Tess potentially compromising his involvement in the heist in Ocean’s Eleven, Rusty’s feelings for Isabel leaves him potentially vulnerable in Ocean’s Twelve. To her credit, Catherine Zeta-Jones fits right in with the European vibe, maintaining just the right mix of determination in nailing Danny and his crew and vulnerability when she’s with Rusty. Their relationship elevates the film ever so slightly above the standard heist story and the conclusion of her subplot is surprisingly emotional and poignant – the highpoint of the trilogy and something you don’t expect from a film like Ocean’s Twelve, which is essentially a feature-length lark.
Matt Damon demonstrates excellent comic timing in this film and is the real stand-out of this strong cast. Early on, Linus asks Rusty if he could have more to do this time out and this moment comes across as quite self-reflexive. It’s as if Damon were almost asking if he could have more screen time in the film itself. In some respects, he is the group’s stammering conscience. There is an amusing scene where Linus, Danny and Rusty meet a contact by the name of Matsui (Robbie Coltrane) for a potential job. Danny, Rusty and Matsui all speak cryptically, which leaves poor Linus totally confused. Damon plays the scene so well as he looks desperately to his cohorts for help or some sort of clue as to what he should say. Put on the spot, Linus finally responds by quoting lyrics from “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin to hilarious effect.
While doing a press conference in Rome during the promotional tour for Ocean’s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh fell in love with the city and over dinner with producer Jerry Weintraub began thinking about the story and structure for a sequel. He got the idea to set it in Europe and was so inspired that he started writing down ideas. After returning to Los Angeles, Weintraub discovered George Nolfi’s screenplay, entitled Honor Among Thieves, about the greatest thief in America going up against his equal in Europe. It was originally developed for John Woo to direct but Weintraub sent the script to George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Soderbergh. The director came up with the basic idea for the film and thought that it “would be more fun if Twelve was the movie in which everything goes wrong from the get-go.” He ended up merging Nolfi’s script with his own ideas. Soderbergh saw this film as more emotional, character-driven and complicated on a narrative level than the first one.
Prior to the start of principal photography, which lasted 77 days, Julia Roberts found out that she was pregnant and Soderbergh incorporated it into the script. He also met with Vincent Cassel at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and asked the actor if he would be interested in being in Ocean’s Twelve. He agreed without reading the script because he trusted someone with a reputation like Soderbergh’s. Once filming began, the production spent ten weeks globetrotting all over the world with stops in Chicago, Amsterdam, Paris, Monte Carlo, Lake Cuomo, and Rome. Principal photography concluded with four weeks on three Warner Brothers soundstages in L.A.
Once again Soderbergh keeps the pace brisk and breezy, making the two-hour running time fly by. Like its predecessor, Ocean’s Twelve is beautifully shot with atmospheric lighting and saturated color as evident in the bright yellow that permeates Isabel’s Europol lecture or the green lighting that illuminates the underwater sequence during a heist that Danny and his crew pull off, or the red lighting that dominates the nightclub where Rusty and Isabel meet. Most of the film takes place in Europe and Soderbergh adopts the look of a European film from the 1960s, which also applies to the eclectically groovy soundtrack from David Holmes that evokes a ‘60s Euro-lounge vibe. The director even described the film’s aesthetic as “the most expensive episode of a ‘60s television show ever.” He and Holmes agreed that the score would be completely different from Ocean’s Eleven in order to complement the different look and feel.
Soderbergh is an excellent visual storyteller and this is evident in several scenes that he depicts without any dialogue, instead resorting to music married to visuals that conveys exactly what’s going on. He understands the kind of movie he’s making and doesn’t try to be too cute or wink knowingly at the audience, instead focusing at the task at hand: making a confident, entertaining movie. Granted, Ocean’s Twelve is no Traffic (2000), and it’s not meant to be, but you could do a lot worse with two hours of your time.
“Ocean’s Eleven was my opportunity to make a movie that has no desire except to give you pleasure, where you surrender without embarrassment or regret.” – Steven Soderbergh
Fresh from the one-two success of Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000), Steven Soderbergh made a conscious decision to shift gears and make a purely entertaining film for a major studio. He managed to convince movie stars George Clooney (whom he had already worked with on Out of Sight) and Brad Pitt to take major cuts in their multi-million dollar salaries and headline a remake of the Rat Pack heist film Ocean’s Eleven (1960). With Clooney and Pitt on board, Soderbergh was then able to get an impressive cast including the likes of Matt Damon and Julia Roberts (both of whom also agreed to take pay cuts) and avoid having his film come across as nothing more than a vanity project for a bunch of smug movie stars. On the contrary, Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is a slick heist film in the tradition of The Sting (1973) in the sense that you know the outcome (the good guys win) but the fun is in how they get there as Soderbergh utilizes every stylish technique that he has available at his disposal.
Daniel Ocean (Clooney) has just been released from prison and is eager to return to his high-end criminal enterprises. He sets his sights on Las Vegas with plans to rob three prestigious casinos: the MGM Grand, the Mirage, and the Bellagio, all of which keep their considerable sums of money in an ultra-secure hi-tech vault controlled by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who, incidentally, is currently dating Danny’s ex-wife Tess (Roberts). It’s not going to be easy and so, with the help of his good friend and ace fixer Rusty Ryan (Pitt), they recruit nine experts to help them pull off a near-impossible heist. In addition to the heist, which serves as the main plot, Ted Griffin’s screenplay expertly weaves in a subplot involving Danny attempt to reconnect with Tess.
This film oozes cool right from the opening credits that play over a fantastic shot of the Atlantic City skyline at night accompanied by funky trip-hop type music by Northern Irish disc jockey David Holmes. We meet Rusty wasting his time teaching young movie stars (Holly Marie Combs and Topher Grace among others making fun of themselves) to play cards. We meet him in Hollywood with a cool groove playing over his establishing shot. This sequence is a bit of meta fun as we see Pitt, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, teaching other movie stars playing a parody of themselves being totally clueless at playing poker only to eventually be hustled by a bemused Danny. Soderbergh even slides in a few sly inside jokes, like Danny asking Topher Grace if it’s hard to make the transition from television to film, which, of course, is exactly what Clooney did. Or, how Grace gets mobbed by autograph hounds while Clooney and Pitt are completely ignored.
One of the best sequences in the film is when Danny and Rusty recruit their crew. The scene where they convince Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) to bankroll their operation is a wonderful example of how expositional dialogue being delivered in the right way by the right actor can be entertaining and informative as Elliott Gould does a fantastic job of warning Danny and Rusty of just how dangerous Benedict is. From there, each character that Danny and Rusty approach is given their own introduction that briefly and succinctly highlights their unique skill and distinctive personality traits. Linus Caldwell (Damon) is an up-and-coming pickpocket with uncanny dexterity. There’s the Malloy brothers, Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan), two drivers by trade with one of them having an affinity for remote controlled devices and a perchance for bickering and irritating each other, which provides a good source of humor. Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison) is an electronics expert in the area of surveillance. Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle) is a demolitions expert with Don Cheadle sporting an obviously exaggerated Cockney accent. Yen (Shaobo Qin) is a diminutive top-of-the-line acrobat that can get in and out of any tight space. Finally, there is Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), a retired flimflam man coaxed back into action by Rusty. Each actor is given at least one scene, often more, to come front and center and do their thing and this is done in a way that doesn’t distract you from the story at hand, which is quite an accomplishment with such a large cast.
David Holmes expertly mixes jazz, funk, soul and hip hop in a way that evokes groovy trip hop or acid jazz but in a retro way that evokes Quincy Jones circa the 1970s. The often-fat bass lines give certain musical cues a confident swagger. There is also plenty of Hammond organ and vibraphone looped to give a lounge-y kind of vibe at times. Later on in the film, Holmes brings in strings and brass to accentuate the romantic subplot between Danny and Tess. Holmes also incorporates songs, like Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” to fantastic effect. This came out of watching the original Ocean’s Eleven as Holmes explained in an interview, “Then I tried to think of ways to identify with what was going on – with it being a contemporary film, how to be original, but set within the heart of Las Vegas. Which is where the Elvis song ‘A Little Less Conversation’ came about, because obviously Elvis had a really strong affiliation with Las Vegas, and that track has a very contemporary feel.”
Steven Soderbergh read Ted Griffin’s screenplay in an afternoon in January 2000. The next day he called producer Jerry Weintraub and told him he wanted to direct the film. What he liked about the script was that it didn’t evoke the original 1960 version but “had this one foot back in the heyday of the studio star-driven movie, like Howard Hawks or George Cukor.” Soderbergh had always been drawn to heist films because, “the conflicts are so clear and dramatic. This seemed to be everything that you want a big Hollywood film to be, on the script level.” He had just made two dramas – Erin Brockovich and Traffic – and wanted to make a fun movie. To prepare for shooting Ocean’s Eleven, he watched Ghostbusters (1984) because he was impressed at “that sort of physical scale [that] feels so tossed-off, with such understated performances and obvious generosity among all the performers.” He also studied films by David Fincher, Steven Spielberg and John McTiernan because they knew how to “orchestrate physical action the way I like to see it.” He looked at how these filmmakers used lens length and height, camera movement and editing, as well as, “how they used their extras, how they structured movements within shots that carried you to the next movement and the next.”
Soderbergh got George Clooney involved and half-jokingly told him, “let’s make it an Irwin Allen movie, where they used to have 10 stars.” Originally, the director considered casting Luke and Owen Wilson, Bruce Willis, and Ralph Fiennes as the villain. Once Clooney was on board, they got the rest of the cast to commit at radically reduced rates, starting with Brad Pitt. However, during filming, the cast stayed in their own 7,000-square-foot villas at the Bellagio. Before shooting, Soderbergh told his cast, “Show up ready to work. If you think you’re just going to walk through this, you’re mistaken. If anybody gets smug, we’re dead.” Soderbergh wanted to shoot in the Bellagio, the MGM Grand and the Mirage – an impossible feat for more mere mortals; however, Weintraub had the connections and the clout to make it happen. The production was allowed to shoot on the floor of the casinos during the day, which nobody is given access to and the casino bosses even shut down entire pits for Soderbergh to shoot in. This allowed the director to design shots that were complicated and large in scale.
Soderbergh wanted the lighting for Ocean’s Eleven to be based in reality and to look like it wasn’t lit at all – not a problem in Las Vegas, a place overloaded with every kind of light imaginable. At times, Soderbergh would add some color to enhance the mood for dramatic purposes in order to put the audience inside the world of the film. He also realized that the locations played a large part in the plot and was interested in showing as much of the environment as possible. One challenge Soderbergh faced was the logistics of filming big dialogue scenes with Danny and his crew in a visually interested way. He had a lot of people in confined spaces and didn’t want these scenes to be boring. So, he attempted to frame shots that clearly established where everyone was while also giving them enough depth and geometry to make the characters interesting to look at.
In a nice touch, Ocean’s Eleven never waxes nostalgic about the original film but instead is wistful about Las Vegas as it was in the 1960s when the casinos were still run by the Mob and had yet to be corporatized and Disney-fied. This is reinforced in one of the motivations Danny has of robbing Benedict. It’s not just that he’s dating his ex-wife but Benedict also recently demolished one of the last old school casinos left in Vegas. Unlike Benedict, Danny respects the past and recruits Reuben and Saul, veteran con artists whose heyday was the ‘60s. It’s great to see Soderbergh giving actors like Gould and Reiner screen-time in a major studio film. These guys don’t work nearly enough and their performances in Ocean’s Eleven are a potent reminder of how good they can be if given the right material and the opportunity. Entrusted with only his second major studio film with an A-list budget, Soderbergh effortlessly orchestrates a fun, engaging popcorn movie like an old pro that has been doing this for their entire career.
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) is a film that asks the burning question: is police brutality ever justified? It is when you’re dealing with the likes of Al Capone and Frank Nitti – gangsters that had no problem blowing up children and killing nebbish accountants to get what they wanted. The film doesn’t exactly adhere to historical fact opting instead to go with John Ford’s famous credo of printing the legend and in doing so raising the characters and their exploits to mythic status. De Palma’s adaptation of Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir of the same name had all the makings of a powerhouse production destined for greatness. It featured a screenplay written by legendary playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish) was behind the camera, master composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad & the Ugly) was scoring the film, and Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were signed on to play larger-than-life characters. The result was an exciting, action-packed epic that helped revitalize De Palma’s struggling career (after the critical and commercial failure of Wise Guys) and earned Connery his first Academy Award.
It is 1930 and gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) controls most of the illegal business in Chicago with a ruthless, iron fist. After a ten-year old girl is killed in a gang-related incident, Federal Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is brought in to clean up the city. His first attempt is an embarrassing failure so he tries a different approach. He decides to form his own task force of three men to help him take down Capone and his empire. He picks a veteran beat cop named Malone (Sean Connery), who knows the city and becomes Ness’ mentor. He also selects Stone (Andy Garcia), a cop fresh out of the academy and ace shot with a pistol. Rounding out the group is Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a bookish FBI accountant who figures out a way to nail Capone. Together, they form an incorruptible group determined to bring Capone to justice.
De Palma and Mamet make it clear right from the get-go that The Untouchables isn’t going to be some half-assed, sanitized gangster film as they proceed to have Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) blow up a bar with a little girl in it. This shocking sequence, juxtaposed with Capone lying about not using violence to enforce his will, sets an all-bets-are-off tone as we get an idea of just how brutal life is in Chicago and how far Capone is willing to go to make a point. This is then contrasted with Eliot Ness’ blandy-McPlainWrap home life with a loving and dutiful wife (Patricia Clarkson) and cute-as-a-button child. We see just how far removed from Chicago Ness’ home life is and what a rude wake-up call he will get when he starts working in the city.
Kevin Costner is wisely cast as the stiff, idealistic Ness. He’s the least interesting character and plays the role straight, trying not to go the obvious heroic route. His all-American looks and Gary Cooper-esque style are ideally suited for the role of the last honest man in the corrupt town (which Oliver Stone would also utilize in JFK). His Ness is as straight an arrow as they come, which makes the character’s arc over the course of the film an interesting one. He goes from staunch upholder of the law to someone who has adopted Malone’s by-any-means-necessary philosophy.
This allows Connery to rightfully shine as the aging cop torn between riding out his remaining time and retire alive or making a difference with Ness and his crew. Unlike Ness, Malone has grown up on and worked the mean streets of Chicago. He understands that they are at war with Capone and must do whatever it takes to bust him and break up his empire because he will be just as ruthless. Upon the first meeting, Malone imparts a valuable lesson to Ness: “Make sure when you shift is over you go home alive.” It seems obvious but is an important one to know. It is also the reason why Malone initially turns down Ness’ offer to form the Untouchables. Connery shows what a once great actor can do with the right material and this results in a truly inspired performance — arguably the veteran actor’s last great one.
Rounding out his trilogy of memorable cameos in the 1980s (including Brazil and Angel Heart), Robert De Niro put on the pounds again (which he first and most famously did for Raging Bull) and transformed himself into Al Capone. Like Tony Montana in De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Capone is surrounded by luxury and opulence but is still just a cruel thug at heart. In the few scenes that he has, De Niro makes them count and it is a thrill to hear a great actor say Mamet’s tough-guy dialogue (listen to how he says the word, “enthusiasms,” in a scene). The actor clearly relishes the role and treats the dialogue like he’s enjoying a rich meal and each word is a juicy morsel that he savors.
The supporting roles feature some fantastic actors, chief among them Billy Drago who exudes just the right amount of oily menace as Nitti. For example, there is a scene where he cordially threatens Ness and his family. On the surface there is the appearance of civility but we know what his true intentions are and it doesn’t take Ness much time to figure it out but by then Nitti is speeding off in his car. He’s made his point. Drago doesn’t get many lines or a lot of screen time but makes the most of what he’s given, making a fine addition to De Palma’s roster of cinematic sociopaths.
Speaking of Mamet’s dialogue, it crackles and pops with intensity and provides many of the film’s classic scenes, perhaps none more memorable than Malone’s famous speech to Ness where he tells him how to get Capone. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” Sean Connery delivers this speech with the passion and conviction that rightfully earned him an Oscar. The other scene of classic Mamet dialogue is Capone’s infamous dinner table monologue where he talks about teamwork before braining a hapless flunky with a baseball bat for not being a part of the “team.”
Brian De Palma’s stylish direction is perfect for this epic story: long, uninterrupted takes, slow motion and excellent compositions within the widescreen format. He may well be one of the greatest practioners of this aspect ratio. Just look at a simple set-up in the scene where Malone takes Ness to a church and lays it all out for how they’re going to get Capone. Both men take up most of the foreground occupying either side of the screen. The camera is low looking up at them so that we also see part of the beautifully ornate church ceiling. It is this kind of shot that would be totally destroyed when shown pan and scanned on television. Then there is the much-celebrated train station shoot-out, which was a shameless homage to a famous sequence in the legendary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s a bravura sequence that is beautifully orchestrated by De Palma as he builds the tension leading up to the shoot-up for what seems like an unbearable eternity. The entire sequence is a brilliant lesson in editing and camerawork.
Although, De Palma does go a little over-the-top (even for him) with the Ness-Nitti show down at the end, which features the director’s obligatory homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There is also a silly bit of business where we see two old cops duking it in a rainy alleyway as Connery and veteran character actor Richard Bradford laughably beat each other up in a scene that I could’ve done without. Also, Malone’s prolonged death scene drags on for what feels like an eternity but these are really minor flaws in an otherwise unimpeachable stone cold classic as De Palma does his best to distract us from these histrionics with giallo lighting in the Connery fight scene and suspenseful point-of-view steadicam work in the death scene.
In 1984, producer Art Linson met with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen liked the idea but Linson did not want to do a sequel, a remake or a parody. He wanted “to create a big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Linson needed a screenwriter and thought of David Mamet, fresh from just having won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway play Glengarry Glen Ross. He met with Mamet and the writer agreed to do the film. The screenwriter was a native of Chicago and something of a gangster history buff. He envisioned a story about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter … It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?”
Mamet asked Paramount to show him two episodes of the original series and he liked them but felt that “there was nothing I could use in the movie.” Mamet wrote an original story after realizing that the real events – Capone being caught for tax evasion – were not that dramatic. Mamet created the character of Malone and gave Ness a family (he did not have one in real life). After eight months, Brian De Palma was approached to direct by Linson after Mamet wrote the third draft of the script. The director liked that the script was more about the characters and did not see it as a gangster film but more like The Magnificent Seven (1960). He felt that the project was “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.” He, Linson and Mamet worked together on it with De Palma emphasizing the Capone character more. According to De Palma, the film “reflects upon the incredible pressure we place on our police by not equipping them to adequately fight criminals. Why are we surprised that some of them go overboard?”
For the role of Eliot Ness, Linson and De Palma initially considered William Hurt and Harrison Ford, but, according to Linson, they wanted “someone with the right combination of naiveté, earnestness and strength.” They ended up casting Kevin Costner who wanted to do the film because it was so different from the television series and Ness “has to ask for help. It’s the more modern notion that a smart man takes a step back sometimes – that to be a hero you don’t have to be Rambo.” For Jimmy Malone, the filmmakers wanted Sean Connery but assumed that he would not want to play a supporting role and take a pay cut. However, Connery was drawn to the project because of Mamet’s script and the chance to work with Robert De Niro. He ended up signing on for a percentage of the profits. For the role of Al Capone, De Palma wanted De Niro. Paramount initially balked at the actor’s asking price of $1.5 million but relented.
The principal actors rehearsed together for a full week and Connery tried to remain in character even when the cast was relaxing. By the time principal photography began, whole scenes had been blocked and unworkable ideas rejected. A rapport between the actors playing the Untouchables had also been established, which definitely shows in the film. In preparation for the film, De Niro put on 30 pounds between the end of his Broadway run in Cuba and His Teddy Bear and his days of filming scheduled at the end of the 70-day production schedule. He analyzed old Movietone newsreels in order to get Capone’s voice, movements and mannerisms. On an interesting note, the famous scene in the church between Ness and Malone as originally written, took place on a street, but Connery suggested it take place in a church – the only place left in the city where they could speak freely.
Principal photography started in mid-August 1986 and utilized over 25 separate locations in Chicago with the border raid sequence shot on the Old Hardy Bridge spanning the Missouri River because of its period look. The train station shoot-out cost $200,000 to light because extra light was needed to shoot the sequence in slow motion. It took six days to shoot the scene, which cost an additional $100,000. Not surprisingly, staging this sequence like the one in Battleship Potemkin was De Palma’s idea. The budget escalated from $17 million to $24 million thanks to the cost of production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein transforming an entire block of LaSalle Street in Chicago into the 1930s complete with 125 costumed extras and 60 period cars.
The production design for The Untouchables is fantastic, especially the opulence of Capone’s headquarters, with Morricone’s score resembling a 1930s riff on the music from De Palma’s Scarface. This film is one of those rare big-budget, star-studded blockbusters that actually works. All of the right elements came together at just the right time and place and resulted in an incredibly entertaining motion picture. The Untouchables shows what a master filmmaker like De Palma can do with a director-for-hire paycheck movie. He may not be making a personal statement with this film but he still gives it his all in terms of style and virtuoso camerawork. This film certainly set a high standard for period gangster films, casting a long shadow over future endeavors like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) and the HBO T.V. series Boardwalk Empire.
The 1980s was quite a prolific decade for actor Kurt Russell. Sprinkled between the genre classics he made with director John Carpenter, the actor tried his hand at a wide variety of roles, from shifty used car salesman in the comedy Used Cars (1980) to a nuclear power plant worker in the docudrama Silkwood (1983) to a police detective in the neo-noir Tequila Sunrise (1988). Often forgotten during this busy decade is a nifty little thriller called The Mean Season (1985). Based on the bestselling 1982 novel In the Heat of the Summer by John Katzenbach, this well-executed film acts as the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page turner.
Set in Miami during the hot, late summer months, the film opens with an urgent brassy score by the great Lalo Schifrin that plays over shots of stormy skies juxtaposed with the busy printing presses of the Miami Journal, foreshadowing how both will play a prominent role later on. Malcolm Anderson (Kurt Russell) is a veteran crime reporter that has just come back from hiatus/job hunting in Colorado. He’s burnt out, lacking both ambition and drive. He wants a change of pace and threatens to quite… again. But before he can bring it up, Bill Nolan (Richard Masur), his editor, assigns him to cover the murder of a young woman that has been shot in the head.
The crime scene sequence speaks volumes about Malcolm’s character. He’s covered the beat long enough to be on friendly terms with homicide detective Ray Martinez (Andy Garcia) but not his partner Phil Wilson (Richard Bradford). He also knows how to get the guy who found the body to open up and talk then has the decency not to use the man’s name in the article. Malcolm is also tactful and understanding with the mother of the murder victim, listening to the woman’s reminisces about her child while still getting what he needs for the article. This is in contrast to Andy Porter (Joe Pantoliano), the crime photographer who shadows Malcolm on his assignments and has no problem taking a picture of the grieving parent during a particularly vulnerable moment. This scene is important because it establishes that Malcolm is good at what he does and he is a decent person so we like and identify with him.
Malcolm finally confronts Bill about his desire to quit in a scene between veteran character actor Richard Masur and Russell. Bill tells Malcolm, “You haven’t been at this long enough to be as burned out as you like to think you are.” Malcolm feels like he’s seen and done it all but still hasn’t found his Watergate yet – the dream of all ambitious investigative reporters. Malcolm sums it up best when he tells Bill, “I don’t want to see my name in the paper next to pictures of dead bodies anymore.” The editor counters, “Now we’re not the manufacturer, we retail. News gets made somewhere else, we just sell it.” It’s a nice scene that is well-played by both actors as their characters touch on the nature of ethics in reporting the news. How far are they willing to go to get a story that makes their career? Malcolm is about to find out as he gets a phone call from the man (Richard Jordan) that killed the teenage girl. He admires Malcolm’s writing and wants the reporter to be his mouthpiece as he plans to kill again.
Bill is practically salivating at the possibilities while Malcolm’s ambition kicks in as he realizes that he’s found his Watergate. However, as the murders continue, Malcolm finds himself getting more involved in the story until he’s as much a part of it as the killer, which puts his life and that of his girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) in danger.
While the set-up and plot of The Mean Season are nothing special – the reporter who gets in way over his head – both are executed well enough that you don’t mind and this is due in large part to the engaging performances of the talented cast that do their best to sell the material. Kurt Russell certainly comes across as a believable newsman. He’s got the lingo down and seems to know his way around the newsroom and the beat that Malcolm covers. The actor does a nice job of conveying his character’s transition from someone reporting on the news to the one making it. He also manages to get a chance to show off some of his action chops in an exciting bit where Malcolm races across town to find his girlfriend before the killer does. His frantic, desperate race is intense because the actor knows how to sell it, running full tilt over several blocks like a man possessed, and because we know more than he does. We know just how much danger his girlfriend is in.
Mariel Hemingway is good in the thankless girlfriend role. She and Russell have good chemistry together. They make a nice couple together and her character ends up acting as the voice of reason when Malcolm gets too involved. Hemingway does her best to avoid the damsel in distress stereotype but it is pretty easy to figure out how it’s all going to go down. She is part of a solid supporting cast that includes Andy Garcia as the dedicated cop that cares and Richard Bradford (The Untouchables) as his older, more experienced partner who thinks that Malcolm is a parasite. The aforementioned Richard Masur (The Thing) is also memorable as the opportunistic editor who just cares about selling papers. The great William Smith (Darker than Amber) has a memorable bit part as a pivotal witness that helps Malcolm and the cops track down the killer. He has only one scene with a decent amount of expositional dialogue to convey but he nails it.
Director Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox) also does a nice job orchestrating the cat and mouse game between Malcolm and the killer thanks to the smartly written screenplay by Leon Piedmont. They manage to hit all the right notes and fulfill all the right conventions of the thriller genre – the grudgingly helpful cops, the ambitious reporter, the sociopathic killer, and so on – and stir it all up. Borsos employs no-nonsense direction like a seasoned studio pro, which lets the actors do their thing. I also like how he conveys a sense of place with the sweaty, summer weather, coupled with the impending hurricane that is almost tangible. It all comes to a head at the exciting and atmospheric climax when Malcolm confronts the killer in the Everglades.
John Katzenbach was a veteran crime reporter who based his debut novel In the Heat of the Summer on years of experiences and that of his colleagues. Producer David Foster, a journalism graduate, had been looking for a good screenplay about reporters for years. He came across the manuscript for Katzenbach’s novel and was impressed by it. He met with the author and they talked about how to accurately convey the life of a newspaper reporter on film.
In April 1984, Borsos and his crew arrived at the Miami Herald offices to study a typical day in the newsroom and on that day Christopher Bernard Wilder, suspected of kidnapping and murdering several young women, shot himself as the police closed in. The resulting flurry of activity at the Herald helped Borsos create a realistic newsroom atmosphere in his film. Katzenbach urged Kurt Russell to hang out with his fellow reporters in preparation for the film. To that end, Russell and Joe Pantoliano accompanied a reporter and a photographer from the newspaper to the scene of a grisly double murder in North Miami. Much like in the film, the actor found cameras were trained on him and later saw footage of himself on the evening news. In addition, Richard Masur spent days and nights on the Herald’s city desk.
Borsos’ previous film The Grey Fox (1982) did not make a profit and so to pay off his debts he agreed to direct The Mean Season. Unfortunately, he had creative differences with Foster over the tone of the film. According to Borsos, he wanted the film to look “somewhat stylized and slightly unreal, more what you would call a 1950’s film-noir type of picture.” In contrast, Foster wanted a more realistic-looking film as Borsos said, “Mr. Foster’s vision was more of action-packed thriller instead of a character-thriller.” It also didn’t help that the director resented the producer’s constant presence on the set. The newsroom scenes were actually shot at the Miami Herald late at night with several staff members used as consultants and extras. Russell and two fellow actors used three real newsroom desks that were outfitted with authentic-looking notepads, books, dictionaries and computer printouts. In addition, Katzenbach was frequently present during filming and acted as a consultant.
The Mean Season is an entertaining film that falters a little bit at the end with a clichéd “twist” that sees Malcolm suddenly transform into an action hero but Russell does his best to make it work. At times, it feels like there are two kinds of films competing – the character-driven thriller that Borsos wanted to make and the action-packed thrill machine that Foster envisioned. The result is a sometimes uneven effort. Not every film has to try and reinvent the wheel by offering some novel take on the genre. There’s something to be said for a thriller that has nothing more on its mind then to entertain and tell a good story and that’s something The Mean Season delivers on both counts.