The Untouchables is one of those movies based on historical events where it best to not look too closely at the actual history behind the story, lest you see the many gaps between truth and fiction. But as a Prohibition-era crime drama, this is a fun movie that riffs off of older, better efforts (most notably that staircase scene from Battleship Potemkin) and packages it all in a story of cops and robbers that is willing to land a few body blows on the audience along the way.
Kevin Costner does a nice job as Elliot Ness, who in 1930 is transferred to Chicago with a mandate of breaking the organized crime that runs the city, and is causing unacceptable collateral bloodshed along the way. Unfortunately, everybody in town either works for Capone or sympathizes with him, so whenever Ness makes a move, Capone knows in advance. Tasked with taking down the most country’s most powerful gangster in the country’s most corrupt city, Ness just can’t get ahead of his invincible adversary, nor can he expect much support from his colleagues, who openly want and expect him to fail.
The story would have ended there, if not for Ness’s fortuitous encounter with Malone, a weary and tough Irish beat cop played by a show-stealing Sean Connery. Malone comes off a bit like someone who perhaps regrets that the Italian mob controls Chicago instead of the Irish one, and he’s so ground down by his job that at first, he’s just another guy telling Ness to forget this crazy chase after Capone. But, of course, he sees in Ness a fire that perhaps once existed within his own belly, and he figures what the hell, if he’s gonna go out, he might as well go out swinging. And so, he mentors Ness on what it’s really going to take to defeat his nemesis.
This element is much needed in a story like The Untouchables, since we all know that Capone was never taken down in some daring shootout, but on the relatively lowly crime of tax evasion. This is Hollywood, though, and we still need gunfights and car chases, and that’s where Malone’s tutelage of Ness comes in. Turns out, in this version of events, the information Ness needs for his buttoned-up tax case must be pried from the fingers of Capone’s various flunkies. And to prepare Ness for that, Malone pulls him aside early on for a heart-to-heart conversation in a church, perhaps the only place in town where neither Capone nor those he has bought off can listen in. And there he lays it out for Ness in my favorite moment in the whole movie. To win this thing, Malone says, is to go where angels fear to tread, and escalate hostilities beyond the other guy’s breaking point. “He pulls out 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! And that’s how you get Capone.” In other words, sometimes to serve the law, you need to act a little bit outside of it.
Malone ultimately falls victim to his own sage advice, but his exit gives Ness the push he needs to take the fight to Capone and bring law and justice a step or two closer to each other. In the end, he walks off having gotten his man, knowing if he had to do it again, he’d probably start by bringing a gun to a knife fight. Fighting fair is for suckers. Well, it is in Chicago, anyway.