One of the films that made Kevin Costner a star also is one of the best movie versions of a television series to date.
“The Untouchables” — which EPIX shows Tuesday, Oct. 19, while it streams this month on Hulu — was part of a one-two punch, along with “No Way Out,” for Kevin Costner in the summer of 1987. Robert Stack had major TV success from 1959 to 1963 with the role of Prohibition-era agent Eliot Ness, but with the assistance of director Brian De Palma and screenwriter David Mamet, Costner redefined the true-life law enforcer as a more vulnerable figure in his pursuit of legendary mobster Al Capone.
The latter part gives Costner a hugely formidable acting match in Robert De Niro, and though their scenes together are limited, the impact of those moments is palpable. That’s not the only case of a veteran actor making a big impact here, either: Sean Connery earned an Oscar as Jimmy Malone, a streetwise Chicago cop who gives Ness a big advantage by joining his small and specially selected team.
Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith are the other members of Ness’ so-called “Untouchables,” and along with Costner and Connery, the unlikely combination of crimebusters gives the picture a lot of its appeal. There’s great pleasure to be had from seeing Connery’s crusty Malone educate Costner’s relatively genteel Ness in “the Chicago way” of dealing with enemies, while there’s just as much enjoyment in seeing Ness use crafty psychology to turn things his way … which isn’t to say he doesn’t resort to brute force when deemed necessary.
The sequence that “The Untouchables” is most noted for remains stunning to watch now. A shootout unfolds on the steps of Union Station as a baby carriage — complete with adorable infant inside — bounces downward amid a hail of bullets, and the choreography among the players, the cinematography by Stephen H. Burum and the editing by Jerry Greenberg and Bill Pankow are remarkable. The scene has been much-spoofed over the years, a measure of just how iconic it is; noteworthy, too, is the music score by the legendary Ennio Morricone.
Both the movie and TV versions of “The Untouchables” have roots in the memoir Ness wrote (with collaborator Oscar Fraley) about his exploits, and though dramatic license is taken in both cases, the results are true to the spirit of the lawman’s crusade to clean up the Windy City. And while he’s had his hits and misses, in both the independent and big-studio realms, the film stands as one of the triumphs of De Palma’s career.