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THE UNTOUCHABLES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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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 HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Has it really been over 20 years since The Hunt For Red October (1990) was released in theaters? It has aged surprisingly well. Fresh off back-to-back successes of Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988), director John McTiernan was at the top of his game. He had become the go-to guy for big budget, blockbuster action films. So, it made sense that he would be entrusted with kickstarting a potential franchise with Red October, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s best-selling novel of the same name, in the hopes of launching a series of films featuring recurring Clancy protagonist Jack Ryan. Paramount Pictures wasn’t taking any chances, casting screen legend Sean Connery and pairing him up with up-and-coming movie star Alec Baldwin. The result, not surprisingly, was box office gold and arguably the strongest entry in the Jack Ryan franchise.

It’s the mid-1980s and the Cold War is at its peak. American Naval Intelligence discovers that the Russians have created the perfect nuclear submarine — one that can run completely silent. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Baldwin) is called in to confirm that this is true, but at the meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he puts forth a radical theory: the sub-commander of this new submarine, Captain Marko Ramius (Connery), may actually be trying to defect and not trying to start World War III as they all fear. This is further complicated when the Russians report that they’ve lost all contact with Ramius. The powers that be send Ryan into the field in the hopes that he can contact the Russian sub-commander before his countrymen blow him out of the water. The film becomes a race against time as Ryan boards the USS Dallas, the American sub closest to the Red October, and convinces its commander (Scott Glenn) that Ramius plans to defect.

McTiernan does a nice job of showing the camaraderie aboard the USS Dallas in a brief scene where the captain of the sub tells a story about how fellow crew member Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) had Pavarotti blasting over the sound system during an exercise with other subs in their fleet. It’s a nice moment of levity amidst this generally serious film. McTiernan also doesn’t bog the film down with an overabundance of technical jargon. And what techno-speak there is in the film is spoken expertly by the cast in a way that is understandable. You may not understand it but you know what they mean.

Along with Das Boot (1981), Red October remains one of the few decent submarine films. And this is because McTiernan builds the tension with the right amount of white-knuckled intensity. The film attempts to maintain the suspense of whether Ramius has gone rogue or is defecting for as long as it can but since Sean Connery is playing the character this removes all doubt as to his true intentions. Connery playing a villain at this stage in his career? Ridiculous! The first hour of Red October is all set-up as the film establishes the major players and their intentions. Then, it shifts into an elaborate game of cat and mouse as both the Russians and the Americans pursue Ramius. If that wasn’t enough, McTiernan ratchets up the tension with the discovery of a saboteur aboard the Red October.

After reading the galley proofs of Tom Clancy’s novel The Hunt for Red October in February 1985, producer Mace Neufeld optioned it. The book went on to become a best-seller and still no Hollywood studio was interested because of its complicated technical jargon. Neufeld said, “I read some of the reports from the other studios, and the story was too complicated to understand.” After 18 months, he finally got a high-level executive at Paramount Pictures to read Clancy’s novel and agree to develop it into a film.

Screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart worked on the screenplay while Neufeld approached the United States Navy in order to get their approval. Initially, they were uncertain because of the fear that top secret information or technology might be exposed. Fortunately, several admirals were fans of Clancy’s book and argued that the film could do for submariners what Top Gun (1986) did for the Navy’s jet fighter pilots. To that end, the director of the Navy’s western regional information office in Los Angeles offered possible changes to the script that would make the Navy look good.

Alec Baldwin was approached to appear in the Red October in December 1988 but was not told for what role. Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was cast as Marko Ramius but unfortunately two weeks into film he had to quit due to a prior commitment. The producers quickly faxed a copy of the script to Sean Connery. Initially, he declined the offer because the script didn’t make any sense. It turned out that he was missing the first page which stated that the film was set in the past during the Cold War. He agreed to do it and arrived in Los Angeles on a Friday and was supposed to start filming on Monday but he asked for a day to rehearse in order to get into the role.

The Navy gave the production unparalleled access to their submarines, allowing them to take pictures of unclassified sections of the USS Chicago and USS Portsmouth for set and prop design. Key cast and crew members took rides in subs including Alec Baldwin and Scott Glenn, both of whom took an overnight trip on the USS Salt Lake City. To research for his role, Glenn temporarily assumed the identity of a submarine captain on board the USS Houston. The crew took “orders” from Glenn, who was being prompted by the sub’s commanding officer.

Shooting in actual submarines was deemed impractical and in their place five soundstages on the Paramount backlot were used with two 50-foot square platforms housing mock-ups of the Red October and the USS Dallas were built. They stood on top of hydraulic gimbals that simulated the sub’s movements. Connery remembered, “It was very claustrophobic. There were 62 people in a very confined space, 45 feet above the stage floor. It got very hot on the sets, and I’m also prone to sea sickness. The set would tilt to 45 degrees. Very disturbing.”

With The Hunt for Red October, Alec Baldwin was being groomed for A-list leading man status. Prior to this film he had appeared in an impressively diverse collection of films, playing a bland, dead Yuppie in Beetlejuice (1988), an unfaithful greaseball boyfriend in Working Girl (1988), and an unscrupulous radio station manager in Talk Radio (1988). Throughout Red October, Ryan is constantly proving his credentials to veteran military officers that he encounters, including a memorable briefing with a group of generals where he puts one of them in their place after the man condescendingly scoffs at his theory about Ramius.

After all this time has passed and two other actors have assayed the role, Alec Baldwin is still the best Jack Ryan for my money. He brings a solid mix of serious action hero with a whimsical sense of humor to his version of Ryan that is sorely missing from the stuffy, no-nonsense approach of Harrison Ford and the wooden acting of Ben Affleck. Baldwin instills a certain warmth and humanity in Ryan that is a refreshing contrast to the technology that dominates the film. Baldwin does a good job of conveying Ryan’s intelligence – after all, he’s a thinking man’s action hero – but he has his doubts and this humanizes the character.

With his baggage of iconic movie roles, Sean Connery is well-cast as the confident Ramius. There is a scene where he tells his inner circle of defectors his true intentions. Calmly eating his dinner, Ramius tells them, “Anatoli, you’re afraid of our fleet, hmm? Well, you should be. Personally, I give us one chance in three.” Connery says this in casual fashion as only he can. I suppose I believe him as a Russian sub commander as much as I believe him as an Irish cop in The Untouchables (1987). Which is to say not so much but it’s Sean freakin’ Connery, dammit! He’s the most virile Scottish actor alive today. He was James Bond and Indiana Jones’ father fer chrissakes! He pulls off the role through sheer charisma. Who else could play the enigmatic veteran commander of the entire Russian Navy? Connery has the gravitas and the iconic cinematic presence to make him seem like the ideal choice to play Ramius.

The Hunt for Red October
features a stellar cast of fantastic character actors supporting Connery and Baldwin. Two of Ramius’ senior crew members are played by Sam Neill and Tim Curry. Neill is excellent as Connery’s no-nonsense second-in-command who defends him against the other defectors who doubt Ramius’ motivations but in private voices his own concerns. You’ve got Scott Glenn as the commander of the USS Dallas, James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior and friend, and Stellan Skarsgard as the Russian sub commander hunting down Ramius. Richard Jordan even pops up in a small but memorable part as the President’s National Security Adviser and talks like how I imagine most politicians do when they are among their own. At one point, he tells Ryan, “Listen, I’m a politician, which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops, but it also means that I keep my options open.” It takes a special kind of actor to come in and knock it out of the park with very little screen time but Jordan does it so well and makes it look easy.

Techno-thrillers don’t get any better than this film — you’ve got Baldwin as the reluctant hero who steps up when he has to, casting Connery with his iconic presence as the enigmatic Ramius, and a top notch supporting cast of character actors. Add to this, expert direction from McTiernan and you’ve got the best Jack Ryan film to date. Sadly, this would be his last really good film. With the exception of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), he has struggled with the tiresome Medicine Man (1992), signed on for the redundant Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) and finally taken up residence in Hacksville with the brainless Rollerball remake (2002). Watching The Hunt for Red October again is a sobering reminder of what a good director he used to be.

Episode 7: With Very Special Guest GARY YOUNG. Sidney Lumet’s THE OFFENCE, MAD MEN, HARRY BROWN and top five Sean Connery and Faye Dunaway

Featured on Episode 7 is a very special guest, Gary Young writer of HARRY BROWN starring Michael Caine.  We also discuss MAD MEN, Sidney Lumet’s THE OFFENCE and top five performances of Sean Connery and Faye Dunaway.

Enjoy!