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Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy

In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was a phenomenon.  So it seemed like a given that the summer of 1990 would belong to Warren Beatty’s comic-strip adventure, Dick Tracy.  The movie boasted big stars like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Madonna and of course Beatty himself.  Also like Batman, Dick Tracy had an eye-popping visual style.  Throw in original songs written by Stephen Sondheim and a promotional tour by the Material Girl and Dick Tracy seemed like a can’t miss blockbuster.  Disney revved up the merchandise machine and prepared to count the money as it rolled in.  But despite a massive marketing push, Dick Tracy didn’t become the phenomenon it seemed destined to be.

Beatty had been circling Dick Tracy since the mid-seventies.  He had a concept of what he thought the movie should be, but he didn’t have the rights.  At one point, John Landis was attached to direct a Dick Tracy movie.  Landis approached Clint Eastwood to play the hard-boiled detective.  But following legal troubles resulting from the tragic accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Landis left the project and Walter Hill came on board.  Hill recruited Beatty for the lead, but they ended up parting ways over creative differences.  Hill wanted to make a gritty crime movie whereas Beatty wanted to pay homage to comic strips of the 1930’s.

In the mid-eighties, Beatty was able to option both the rights to Dick Tracy and the existing script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.  The project was at Paramount at the time, but when Jeffrey Katzenberg moved from Paramount to Disney, he took Dick Tracy with him.  Beatty intended to produce and star in the movie, but he said he originally wanted Martin Scorsese to direct.  Later he decided to direct the movie himself because he thought it was “easier than going through what I’d have to go through to get somebody else to do it.”

Dick Tracy

Right away, Disney had concerns about Beatty’s reputation for over-spending.  They greenlit the movie with Beatty as the director on the condition that he stick to a $25 million dollar budget.  Their concerns were not unfounded.  As tends to happen with the perfectionist director, the budget began ballooning immediately.  It was estimated that Dick Tracy cost nearly twice its budget.  On top of that, Disney spent another $50-million-plus on marketing in hopes that Dick Tracy could be their next big franchise.

Dick Tracy - Pacino

Beatty brought along some of his Hollywood friends.  He cast Al Pacino as the main villain and convinced Dustin Hoffman to make a cameo.  Both actors were buried under mountains of make-up.  Beatty was dating Madonna at the time and she suggested playing the movie’s femme fatale.  The role of Beatty’s sweetheart, Tess Truheart, originally went to Sean Young.  But after a few days of filming, Beatty had Young replaced by Glenne Headly.  According to Beatty, Young didn’t seem wholesome and maternal enough for the role.  But Young alleges she was fired because she rebuffed Beatty’s romantic overtures.

To allay concerns that a Warren Beatty movie wouldn’t appeal to kids, Disney attached a Roger Rabbit cartoon to every print.  They also made the same kind of promotional deals that had made the first Batman movie an inescapable event.  There were toys, T-shirts, Happy Meals, wrist watches, lunch boxes and trading cards.  The previous summer, Warner Brothers had slapped the Batman logo on everything and watched the merchandise fly off the shelves.  But mountains of Dick Tracy merchandise ended up in clearance bins a month after the movie opened.

Dick Tracy

Which is not to suggest that Dick Tracy was a failure.  When it was released, it was well-regarded by critics.  It opened in first place at the box office and grossed over $100 million dollars.  But that wasn’t the level of success Disney had in mind.  Batman had grossed over $250 million and Disney was expecting something closer to that number.

But don’t take my word for it.  In 1991, studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg wrote a now-infamous memo about the state of the movie industry at the time.  In a bit of irony, Katzenberg warned against the “blockbuster mentality” and promised that Disney would no longer fall prey to it.  The memo made waves when it leaked to the press and contained frank criticism of several stars including Beatty.  (Katzenberg’s memo was actually the inspiration for the one Tom Cruise writes in the film Jerry Maguire).  On the subject of Dick Tracy, Katzenberg wrote the following:

Here at Disney, our biggest effort to compete in blockbuster terms, Dick Tracy, is a case in point as to how the box office mentality is affecting the moviegoing experience. Dick Tracy was in the works for nearly ten years. But by the time it was ready for release, we were upon the summer of 1990 and we knew that its success would be for the most part judged by its opening weekend box office performance. So, we did everything that we could in order to get the film the audience and recognition we felt it deserved…

The result was a film that did very well, a film we were rightly proud of, a film that was critically acclaimed… and a film that is still being savagely disparaged as “having failed to achieve Batman-like success at the box office….”

By every rational measure, it was a success. It topped $100 million in domestic box office, sold millions of dollars of merchandise and was by all accounts a cultural event. Nevertheless, having tried and succeeded, we should now look long and hard at the blockbuster business… and get out of it.

As profitable as it was, Dick Tracy made demands on our time, talent and treasury that, upon reflection, may not have been worth it. The number of hours it required, the amount of anxiety it generated and the amount of dollars that needed to be expended were disproportionate to the amount of success achieved…

This is why, when Warren Beatty comes to us to pitch his next movie — a big period action film, costing $40 million, with huge talent participation, directed by the man who is arguably the most brilliant filmmaker today at making movies that are successful commercially and artistically, owned and controlled by Beatty and Levinson — we must hear what they have to say, allow ourselves to get very excited over what will likely be a spectacular film event, then slap ourselves a few times, throw cold water on our faces and soberly conclude that it’s not a project we should choose to get involved in…

Dick Tracy was a great experience. It was a solid hit and an outstanding accomplishment that was remarkable for making Variety’s list of ten biggest grosser and The New York Times’ list of ten best films. But, as much as Dick Tracy was about successful filmmaking, it was also about losing control of our own destiny. And that’s too high a price to pay for any movie.

It’s funny because the philosophy that Katzenberg is advocating is diametrically opposed to the studio’s current business strategy.

Dick Tracy - Pacino

As you can imagine, no one was talking Dick Tracy sequels after Katzenberg’s memo went public.  But Beatty still clung to the idea of continuing the series.  He has been involved in several lawsuits in an effort to hold on to the TV and movie rights to the character.  In 2008, Beatty actually reprised his role in a Dick Tracy TV Special which aired on Turner Movie Classics.

Beatty appeared as Tracy and was interviewed about the movie by  film critic Leonard Maltin.  In a bit of meta weirdness, Beatty as Tracy is critical of Beatty’s performance as Dick Tracy.  He also gives Maltin some advice on aging gracefully via fruit consumption:

In 2011, after winning a summary judgement in his favor, Beatty insisted he was still planning a sequel:

I’m gonna make another one [but] I think it’s dumb talking about movies before you make them. I just don’t do it. It gives you the perfect excuse to avoid making them.

So you can look forward to the 78-year-old star playing a comic book hero any summer now, I’m sure.

More Movies that were supposed to…

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Posted on September 29, 2015, in Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 58 Comments.

  1. I saw Dick Tracy in its entirety once: during its original theatrical run. I’ve seen parts since. But I haven’t watched the whole thing. I remember liking it at the time. But I haven’t really felt the need or desire to re-watch it.

    I’m reminded of something you wrote once about how after the success of Batman Hollywood set out to cash in but confused Pulp heroes like Tracy and The Phantom with superheroes.

    Another one that was supposed to start a franchise. But didn’t was The Rocketeer which was released a year after Tracy and underperformed even worse,

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    • There will definitely be an entry on The Rocketeer at some point. Maybe on that film’s anniversary. Yeah, Hollywood followed up Batman with Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Shadow and The Phantom – a bunch of pulp heroes who were nowhere near as relevant as the Caped Crusader. But they couldn’t differentiate between a super hero and a comic strip character at the time. Hollywood thought they were interchangeable.

      I know I have seen Dick Tracy a couple times. But the last time was a long time ago and I don’t have any desire to revisit it again. It’s okay for what it was. But Disney was setting itself up for disappointment expecting it to be another Batman.

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      • In some ways they fell into the same trap a decade later when they tried to replicate the success of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies by making a Lone Ranger movie. They didn’t realize a few things:

        1: Most people that go to movie these days have no idea who The Lone Ranger was.
        2: People were burning out on the Jack Sparrow schtick.
        3: Most significantly, the story had to be good.

        Bombs away.

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        • It’s funny you mention Lone Ranger. There’s an even earlier precedent that could have warned Disney off of that one. I’ll have more on that in October.

          Pirates and Lone Ranger is a bit of a different animal. Remember, when Pirates came out, that was a dead genre. So I don’t think it’s a case of Disney failing to realize that Westerns or The Lone Ranger weren’t as popular as the original property. The mistake they made was thinking they could catch lightning in a bottle again. What made the first Pirates movie a hit was that expectations were low and it was more fun than people thought it would be. Also, it came around at exactly the right time. You can’t just pull the same people together again years later and give them a boatload of money and expect the same results.

          On the other hand, I understand the thinking. It seems like a pretty safe bet to reunite the Pirates team on a new franchise. They just spent way too much money on it. The first Pirates cost $140 million. The Lone Ranger cost $210. Once you get up that high, there’s no room for weak box office. The movie has to be a smash. Obviously, it wasn’t. But its international grosses really are impressive. The worldwide market is not sick of Depp’s shtick.

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        • The lack of wide-spread knowledge of the source material is likely why many post-“Batman” comic book/superhero movies like “The Rocketeer”, “The Shadow”, and “The Phantom” (and to a certain degree, “Dick Tracy”) underwhelmed at the box office. Batman is a certifiable pop cultural icon. Even if you aren’t a hardcore comic book reader, it’s highly possible that you knew who the character was long the Tim Burton movie came out.

          I do wonder if the period piece setting for the movies that I mentioned also hurt its appeal with youngsters (even though they helped kept the movies from becoming “too dated”). The 1989 “Batman” movie had a decidedly “clash of time periods”. What I mean is that it could’ve taken place in a universe that was a cross between the 1940s and late 1980s, if that makes sense.

          http://gothamalleys.blogspot.com/2011/11/when-does-batman-take-place.html

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        • I just think the studios had too high expectations and bloated budgets for these films, so they would’ve been better off dialing it down a little. I mean, I remember “Tank Girl” being kind of a thing (Bjork’s “Army of Me” is an awesome tune!), just not a film that was going to make 50M. As for kids, they don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of the character to view a film, they just have to like what they see to go see it (that makes sense, really).

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      • I will be looking forward to hearing your take on The Rocketeer; I’ve always liked that one too–hard not to when you have a young and gorgeous Jennifer Connelly and that epic James Horner score.

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        • I thought The Rocketeer deserved better than it got. And yes, Connelly was at the peak of her gorgeousness.

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        • Agreed with Lebeau on The Rocketeer deserving better than it got. There’s a reason why it has something of a cult following these days. Unlike Dick Tracy, it’s one I’ve seen a few times.

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    • 15 Years Ago, ‘The Mask Of Zorro’ Ended The ‘Batman’ Phase Of Superhero Cinema:
      http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2013/07/17/15-years-ago-the-mask-of-zorro-ended-the-batman-phase-of-superhero-cinema/

      s for the 25th anniversary of Die Hard (confession: I prefer Speed), I’d rather take a moment this week to highlight the 15th anniversary of one of my very favorite films. I’m speaking of course of Martin Campbell’s superb superhero adventure, The Mask Of Zorro. Released fifteen years ago today, the Antonio Banderas/Anthony Hopkins action film remains perhaps my very favorite picture in the would-be superhero genre. The picture opened to a solid-not-spectacular $22 million, received mostly positive reviews, and went on to earn $250 million worldwide on a $94 million budget. What stands out about the film today, other than how great it still is and how well it holds up in our current reboot/reinvention age, is the perhaps coincidental timing of its release. It marked the proverbial end of the first phase of superhero cinema that began back in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman while existing as a top-notch example of the kind of superhero films that Batman inspired.

      Despite being a game-changer in a hundred different ways (a 20th anniversary financial retrospective), Tim Burton’s Batman did not usher in a new golden age of big-budget superhero films. Batman truly plays less like a modern action thriller than like a 1940′s pulp gangster picture. Especially in its first half, the film feels like a smokey film noir story that happens to involve a giant bat and a gangster who turns into a killer clown. While Batman technically takes place in the present, it feels like a 1940′s set thriller that has dashes of modern technology, an idea that would be borrowed for Batman: The Animated Series three years later. Batman has a sensibility that doesn’t so much render it timeless, but a rather authentic adaptation of the first three years or so of the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger “The Bat-Man” comic book stories. Actually, all four original Batman films are faithful versions of a specific era of the Batman comic book, but that’s a conversation for June 23, 2014.

      Why this is important is that it explains the kind of comic book/superhero films that we did see after Batman. With one exception that I’ll get to later, pretty much every would-be ‘next Batman‘ was a 1930′s or 1940′s-set period adventure film. Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and The Phantom all followed in Burton’s footsteps, and all were financially disappointing, if not outright bombs. The insanely underrated Dick Tracy was more a victim of outlandish post-Batman expectations, becoming the first $100 million-grossing “flop”. The other comic book adaptations we saw several years later were explicitly futuristic and/or post-apocalyptic in nature, but they too (Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Barbed Wire, etc.) also met unfortunate box office ends. The problem was that audiences, especially younger audiences, didn’t know who these older pulp heroes or cult comic book characters were and there wasn’t enough star power to make them care.

      The post-Batman era was marked by period-piece 1930′s/1940′s era adventures that didn’t have the star power or cultural cachet to even flirt with Batman‘s mammoth success. The period piece adventure films of the post-Batman era that were hits, such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Disney’s The Three Musketeers, were sold as all-star ensembles that happened to be reinventions of classic stories. Even if you didn’t care about Robin Hood in 1991, you probably cared about Kevin Costner and remembered Alan Rickman from Die Hard. The Mask of Zorro of course fits squarely in this category. It was sold as less ‘the Zorro movie you never knew you wanted!’ and more as ‘watch Antonio Banderas play the only Spanish superhero you may have heard of, co-starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by the guy who helmed GoldenEye’. In the post-Batman era, if you depended on the popularity of your source material, you usually died at the box office. If you had something to offer in terms of real star power (think Will Smith in Men In Black), you would be just fine even if no one knew the comic or radio show your film happened to be based on.

      The one comic book adaptation that hit it big after Batman was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which grossed $200 million worldwide on a $14 million budget in spring 1990. It was among the only major comic book adaptations of this era that was based on a property that the moviegoers of the day actually wanted to see onscreen. We weren’t getting new films for the comic book and pulp serial superheros that audiences of the day actually cared about (Spider-Man spent the era tangled in legal webs), but rather period-piece adventures starring kid-unfriendly draws like Warren Beatty and Alec Baldwin that all hopped to be ‘the next Batman‘. Spawn, in 1997, was the other rare post-Batman comic book adaptation which both more-or-less took place in the present and depended on fans of the source material for its success. It was the rare comic book hit as well, earning $87 million worldwide on a $40 million budget. A year later, The Mask of Zorro closed the book on this initial phase of superhero cinema, fittingly enough by being among the very best of its era.

      As a film, Martin Campbell’s terrific reinvention is a near-peerless example of how to rejuvenate a classic character for a modern audience. Superb acting, a witty and intelligent screenplay, three-dimensional characters, and top-notch action and stunt work shot and edited for maximum clarity, The Mask of Zorro is a nearly perfect superhero picture. As an action drama, it stands in the same esteemed company as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and whichever 007 film happens to be your favorite. As a financial product, The Mask Of Zorro was an example of a post-Batman superhero film that succeeded because it had genuine star power and was marketed to be appealing even for those utterly ignorant of the source material (and, after the opening weekend, because it was really good). Purely as a coincidence, it basically acted as a series finale of sorts for the post-Batman phase of comic book/superhero films. It opened just over a month before another superhero franchise, this one a pure comic book adaptation, burst onto the scene. It was both a present-tense star vehicle and a case of a certain comic book powerhouse finally beginning to get their house in order. It wasn’t a game-changer so much as it opened the door for the storm to come.

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  2. I have always liked Dick Tracy; truth be told, I like it better than Batman. But at the same time, I can easily see why it wasn’t the blockbuster hit that Batman was. Partly, as you and Jeff note, there’s a difference between comic strip characters and superheroes. Another factor is that it’s just too offbeat a film for some tastes–it doesn’t fit neatly into a particular genre. It’s part gangster film, part parody of gangster film, part musical (a given with Madonna and Mandy Patinkin in the cast), part exercise in visual style. It’s got flaws but it also has some definite positives–I love the rogue’s gallery of supporting characters, all the way down to cameos from James Caan and Catherine O’Hara.

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  3. Superhero Rewind: Dick Tracy Review:

    CINEMADONNA Dick Tracy:

    Disneycember – Dick Tracy:

    Why Dick Tracy 2 Never Happened:
    http://www.denofgeek.us/movies/dick-tracy/246948/why-dick-tracy-2-never-happened

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    • Retrospective / Review – Dick Tracy (1990):

      Dick Tracy (1990) : Why wasn’t this a bigger hit?
      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099422/board/flat/240012061?d=240012061#240012061

      I’m not going to pretend that “Dick Tracy” is a perfect film. There are some daft bits – Tracy’s escape near the end when he’s catapulted through the roof comes to mind – and, as other posters have noted, there are too many musical numbers.

      Still, unlike many comic-book adaptations, “Dick Tracy” neither sneers at its sources, nor feels obliged to be too grim and earnest to prove it isn’t sneering at its sources. The goodies are goodies, and the baddies are baddies; the former aren’t hypocrites, and the latter aren’t just misunderstood. The production, with all those gorgeous colors, really does fulfil the old cliché of a comic-book being brought to life. And there is a really nice, old-fashioned story, with a clever twist (well, as a kid, I didn’t realize who No-Face was!).

      So – why didn’t “Dick Tracy” make more of an impact? As a comic-book, or comic-strip, derived film, was is overshadowed by the previous years “Batman”?

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  4. How do you fire someone for not being “wholesome and maternal” and then replace them with MADONNA.

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    • Ooops. I should have been more clear. Young was not up for the Madonna part. She had been cast as Tess Truheart and was replaced by Glenne Headly. I’ll add a bit to clarify that point. Thanks for the catch!

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    • Beatty and Madonna some of the least likeable screen presences ever:
      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099422/board/thread/248947770

      Probably one of the reasons it failed. Beatty always too busy shagging whomever his starlet is (in this case Madonna) off screen to deliver an energetic, interesting performance (he just sort of blinks and recites his lines in every movie), while Madonna just gives a flat delivery, is cold, and projects none of her charisma as a music performer as an actress. Add the fact that Tracy had no pull with the current generation the way Batman did and this was doomed from the start (funny villain bits with Pacino and Hoffman however).

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      • I guess my biggest gripe w/ Beatty in this movie is that he often seems lost (as if he’s sleepwalking) or not in control (even though ironically, he’s the director). Dick Tracy to me, should be a square but still hard-boiled, old-school cop. Beatty seemed too laid back for such a thing.

        I guess if it were up to me, I would’ve gone w/ somebody like Harrison Ford in the Tracy role.It seemed like Beatty was so wrapped up in the movie’s overall look and tone, that there wasn’t enough room left to work more on his own performance.

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        • Probably; Warren Beatty may have been better served to cast someone else since he had so much going on. However, I don’t know if this film could’ve been any better; I mean, I like Dick Tracy, but even back then it was a tad obscure (something I didn’t realize at the time when I viewed it in the theater).

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  5. I think it wasn’t just the difference between a comic strip and a comic book character. It was that Batman was the darkest take we had on a character from the comics. Sure, it doesn’t seem nearly as dark now, but in 1989 it was revolutionary. Dick Tracy may well have worked a decade earlier when Superman was the standard for the genre. But coming after Batman it just seemed too silly. And keep in mind the year after Dick Tracy we had Terminator 2, which isn’t a superhero movie but is in the ballpark. That’s what people wanted. Unfortunately it took another decade before Hollywood started understanding what made the first Batman stand out.

    I was 17 when Dick Tracy came out (the ideal age for that sort of movie) and had zero interest in seeing it. In fact, to this day I’ve never seen it and have no interest in doing so.

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    • I don’t know that I agree that audiences were solely interested in dark movies. The primary color palette was one of Dick Tracy’s main selling points. Also, The Shadow was all dark and Batmany, and it didn’t do as well as Dick Tracy did.

      But I can see why a 17 year old who likes Batman and T2 wouldn’t care at all about Dick Tracy. The character is a relic. Batman’s been updated time and again over the years. Dick Tracy feels like he belongs in the 30’s. Also, Beatty’s Dick Tracy feels like a middle-aged guy playing dress-up. His performance is dull. It’s not that his Dick Tracy is all-business. He seems bored.

      I will say that if you haven’t seen Dick Tracy, you should check it out some time. It’s a decent movie. Not a must-see, but if the opportunity presents itself it’s worth seeing.

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  6. I viewed “Dick Tracy” when it appeared at the local village theater in 1990; I liked it quite a bit, and was surprised to hear later on that it was considered something of a disappointment (but then again, I didn’t know of the intentions that it would be a franchise either). I haven’t seen it since, but everytime it’s bought up nowadays the Madonna song “Hanky Panky” pops in my head, along with the lyric “Nothing like a good spanky”. I guess some things can really leave an impression.

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    • lol

      This was right at the peak of Madonna’s popularity. You can see why Disney thought they were going to be tapping into the zeitgeist. If it had been anything other than a middle-aged Beatty playing a Depression-era comic strip character, they probably would have been right too.

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  7. Peter Travers Review Of Dick Tracy (in Rolling Stone)

    “After all the hype, the movie of Dick Tracy turns out to be a great big beautiful bore. Many viewers (myself excluded) felt the same thing about Batman, last year’s box-office biggie, with which Tracy shares more than an origin in the funny papers. Batman also has a loner hero, a grotesque villain, a blond bombshell, a marketable pop soundtrack and a no-mercy merchandising campaign. But Batman possesses something else: a psychological depth that gives the audience a stake in the characters. Tracy sticks to its eye-poppingly brilliant surface. Though the film is a visual knockout, it’s emotionally impoverished.

    It’s not that producer-director Warren Beatty hasn’t thought things through. Beatty’s been talking about filming Chester Gould’s classic comic strip for five years. And casting himself in the title role isn’t the problem. At fifty-three, Beatty still has the looks and bearing to play the square-jawed crime fighter whose only fears are a desk job and marriage.

    What Beatty can’t do is make Tracy compelling. Gould couldn’t either. That’s why the cartoonist surrounded his duty-bound cop with a jazzy wardrobe (a yellow raincoat and fedora), gimmicks (a two-way-radio wristwatch) and misshapen villains (Flattop, Pruneface, Itchy, et cetera). Violence was unheard of in newspaper comic strips in 1931, when Tracy debuted, so the strip was a shocker and an immediate success. Today, five years since Gould’s death, the strip still appears in hundreds of newspapers, written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Dick Locher; it’s an intriguing curio.

    But the strip is more than that to Beatty — he sees Gould’s creation as an evocation of prewar America on the brink of losing its innocence. Gould’s drawings, influenced by postexpressionist art, which showed a bright world growing dark and twisted, became the film’s blueprint. Production designer Richard Sylbert (Reds) employed only the seven basic colors used by Gould — a color scheme Milena Canonero followed in her costumes. Make-up experts John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler (Cotton Club) created faces for the villains that exaggerate the baser human instincts. To preserve the strip’s vignette structure, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor) took care not to move the camera too much within the shot. Editor Richard Marks (Broadcast News) then cut the film sharply from frame to frame to mimic the abrupt transitions of the comics. Under Beatty’s exacting direction, these artists did incomparable work.

    The trouble is that all this technique hardly gives the actors room to breathe. Glenne Headly (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as Tess Trueheart, Tracy’s loyal love, and Charlie Korsmo (Men Don’t Leave) as the Kid, a tough orphan who tries to get Tracy to adopt him, don’t have roles — they have plot functions. Young Korsmo is a feisty wonder, but he’s there only to humanize Tracy.

    Madonna does substantially more with the role of torch singer Breathless Mahoney, a moll with a yen for Tracy. It’s still hard to tell if Madonna is an actress, but she is a definite presence. “That’s what I call a dame,” says the Kid to Tracy. The Kid’s got a point. Madonna suggests the glamour of Marlene Dietrich in everything from Blonde Venus to Witness for the Prosecution. Dressed in something black, clinging and transparent, Madonna exudes enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. “You don’t know whether to hit me or kiss me,” she tells Tracy. “I get that a lot.” Though the movie heats up considerably when Breathless tries to get Tracy to give in to his dark side, Beatty only hints at the possibilities of this kinky attraction.

    More surprisingly, Beatty fails to use the music to arouse thoughts of romance and eroticism. Danny Elfman’s score, uncomfortably close to his work on Batman, sticks to ominousness. Beatty also wastes the three songs Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) has written for Madonna. The melodies are not remotely near the composer’s best, but his intricate lyrics suggest there are many kinds of fires burning in Breathless. So why does Beatty go out of his way to bank their flame? He never allows Madonna to complete a song without cutting away to car chases or gunshots. The most tellingly romantic Sondheim number is “What Can You Lose” — a duet for Madonna and the gifted Mandy Patinkin, who plays Breathless’s lovesick accompanist, 88 Keys. But the song is mostly played over shots of Tracy and the Kid at a diner.

    The villains are another missed opportunity. William Forsythe’s Flattop, Lawrence Steven Meyers’s Little Face and Paul Sorvino’s Lips Manlis are artfully outlandish creations given too little screen time to properly register on an audience. Dustin Hoffman, in a blond wig and with a twisted mouth, does better as Mumbles; he seems to be controlling the makeup instead of vice versa. But all — even the Blank (the faceless villain who gives the picture its surprise ending) — fall before the evil Big Boy Caprice of Al Pacino. Fitted with a hunchback, padded hips and a Hitler mustache, Pacino offers a grandly conceived comic creation. Big Boy threatens Tracy, mauls Breathless and fulminates in a manner that makes Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman look timid. But even this performance grows repetitive and wearisome. Pacino is defeated by the same culprit that ultimately brings down the movie: a lousy script.

    Credited to Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. — a pair whose movies (Top Gun, Legal Eagles, Turner and Hooch) make money but no sense — the screenplay is exasperatingly witless. Beatty is so concerned with how things look that he’s forgotten the importance of verbal style and friskiness. By confusing artifice with art, Beatty has deliberately made a movie with no depth. For all its superficial pleasures, Dick Tracy ultimately flounders because it provides an audience with nothing to take home and dream about.”

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    • I guess my biggest gripe w/ Beatty in this movie is that he often seems lost (as if he’s sleepwalking) or not in control (even though ironically, he’s the director). Dick Tracy to me, should be a square but still hard-boiled, old-school cop. Beatty seemed too laid back for such a thing.

      I guess if it were up to me, I would’ve gone w/ somebody like Harrison Ford in the Tracy role. It seemed like Beatty was so wrapped up in the movie’s overall like and tone, that there wasn’t enough room left to work more on his own performance.

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      • Well said; I’m going to have to re-watch this film sometime and really hone in on Beatty’s performance, instead of getting lost in hanky panky, bright colors, and wild characters like I did the last time.

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  8. I saw it. I was young. It left absolutely no impression on me. I don’t remember the plot- I don’t remember the plot actually mattering. I remember being grossed out by the spit string between Madonna and Warren Beatty at the end of the film when Breathless Mahoney died. It is news to me that this movie was intended to appeal to kids. I thought it was geared towards adults who had nostalgia for the comics. Kids did not know or care what “Dick Tracy” was.
    It sure did take Hollywood a long time to learn not to cast Madonna though- somehow they just refused to accept that she couldn’t act. Bomb after bomb, hope sprang eternal for her acting career. I suppose it was assumed that her general popularity was going to put butts in theater seats and time and time again it usually wasn’t true. In films like this, though, she couldn’t really do any harm- she was fine as long as her character was not that important, she was playing some image of herself, and provided a soundtrack. Except for ‘Evita’, the best you can kind of get from a Madonna movie is that there was no harm in her being there. Didn’t “Shanghai Surprise” pretty much kill Handmade Films?

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    • I’d strongly suspect that Disney hoped the words “Disney” and “Madonna” would draw kids in.

      I think Madonna finally accepted that she can’t act. She can sing. But since the 80s she’s tried desperately to be everything to everyone. She tried acting of course and the results were pitiful. She also tried writing children’s books. But the results were pitiful. She even made a couple attempts at screenwriting and directing. But the results were pitiful.

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      • Actually, her first children’s book was well reviewed, but the second one was not. It had something to do with people gossiping about others because they’re jealous, and critics just read into it as her personal defensiveness. And I think she would probably still act if anyone were still asking her. I think the reason they’re not isn’t because she sucks- which she does- but because her name doesn’t carry the same currency anymore- nor her sexuality. She hasn’t been forgotten, but pop culture has moved on and she’s old news. Hollywood just stopped caring about her. If anything they’d rather cast her daughter in something if they could, no acting skills required.
        George Harrison said of her that she was “a pain in the ass” to work with and that the film didn’t work because “we were making a comedy, and she doesn’t have a sense of humor.”( I think she does, just not about herself.) That’s the consequence of making casting decisions with your dick on his end not appreciating your limitations on hers. But she can’t get away with being a both untalented AND a pain in the ass now that she’s neither au courant or a sex symbol.

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      • I think Disney was pretty nervous about Madonna being in the movie. On the one hand, they hoped it would sell tickets. On the other, they were worried about her sexy image tarnishing the Disney brand. It didn’t help that her dialogue consisted mostly of single-entendres. But there wasn’t much Disney could do. They had gotten in bed with Beatty and that meant they were basically at his mercy. All they could do was market the hell out of whatever he gave them.And that they did.

        I do think you’re being slightly uncharitable to Madonna. Love her or hate her, she’s been amazingly successful. I don’t think I would say she was desperate to be all things to all people. It’s pretty commonly agreed that she does things on her own terms. I think she has always been extremely motivated by fame. She wants to conquer the world which has meant branching off into lots of different things. Some have obviously been more successful than others. Her success in movies was pretty short-lived.

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        • I’ve always felt that she didn’t really care whether or not she was any good at the medium she was working in as long as people would pay her for it. Her many, many failures in film would have killed the drive of a lesser ego, but being savaged by critics, ignored by the box office, and dissed by George Harrison (who wasn’t even as harsh as some directors) didn’t show much sign of deterring her. It seems she didn’t let well enough alone until ‘Swept Away’- your acting being so bad it destroys your marriage seems to be her line in the sand. Maybe she’s just gotten tired of it. I guess after 50 the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” method just loses it’s appeal.
          I think if you cast Madonna as your lead and your film turns out to be shit, it’s on you, not her; Madonna was just being Madonna, it’s the director who should know better.

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        • I’m inclined to agree. Madonna became a target of the Razzies, so we’ll see a lot more of her in future entries in that series. For the most part, when you cast Madonna it was stunt casting. That’s a double edged sword. In the right movie, Desperately Seeking Susan and arguably Dick Tracy, she can be an asset. Cast her in the wrong movie, Shanghai Surprise and Who’s that Girl, and she’s a liability. It’s all in what you do with her.

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      • Right. The director is the one responsible for making the final call on who gets cast.

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        • Well, sometimes that is more true than others. A director can get stuck with someone they don’t want to make the studio or producers happy. Or they can just run out of options. For example, the last person Jonathan Demme wanted for Silence of the Lambs was Jodie Foster. But almost every other name in Hollywood passed and he was stuck with her. Worked out well, but apparently there was tension because it was obvious Demme was unhappy with the casting at first.

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    • I really think the old men who were running the studios at the time couldn’t distinguish between characters like Batman and Superman – superheros who had remained relevant through comic books and cartoons – and Dick Tracy and the Shadow – pulp characters who faded from relevance decades before. WB had the rights to Batman and Superman and they weren’t sharing. So you pretty much had to go to Marvel or Image if you wanted to license a recognizable comic book character. And we all saw how going to Image worked out. Hollywood hadn’t figured out how to do super team yet which ruled out a lot of Marvel properties. Plus there was this idea that only the most popular characters were movie-worthy. And the rights to Spider-man were tied up in lawsuits. But the rights to these old pulp characters were available and could be picked up relatively cheaply. To these old guys, the Rocketeer may as well have been Batman. It’s the same thinking that lead to a Popeye movie following the success of Superman. It’s all cartoons. Interchangeable.

      As for Madonna, I think you are selling her early movie career a bit short. There was reason to believe Madonna could sell movie tickets. She was barely in Vision Quest, but was the primary focus of the film’s marketing campaign in 1985. She followed that up with Desperately Seeking Susan which was essentially The Madonna Movie. So she got off to a decent start. In ’86 and ’87 she had high profile flops with Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl. But her music career was getting bigger and bigger. She backed off for a bit. Reemerged in bloodhound of Broadway in 1989 which most people were completely unaware of. By the time Dick Tracy came around in 1990, most people had forgotten that Madonna had done movies. It was almost like starting her movie career over again. And it was a hit. Then in ’92 she had a supporting role in A League of Their Own which seemed to suggest that Madonna had a movie career ahead of her. Then she had a string of misses with the exception of Evita… except Evita wasn’t a hit either. It grossed $50 million in the US on a budget of $55 million.

      Shanghai Surprise was a big bomb, but Handmade Films is still around today. It was sold to a Canadian company in 1994, but it continued making movies for several years after Shanghai Surprise into 1990. I’m sure its failure was a big financial blow to the company, but it never really had the best track record at the box office anyway.

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      • The name “Handmade Films” exists, but it’s not really the same company, nor does it have a very high profile, but I don’t really think it’s all her fault; Shanghai Surprise just seems to have been the beginning of the end. Handmade Films started when George Harrison put up the money for the first Monty Python movie, simply because he wanted to see it. He found a business partner and made some more movies, mostly with Terry Gilliam, that weren’t box office driven but had cult appeal. I don’t know why the people who made “Brazil” wanted to do Shanghai Surprise- I guess they envisioned it being a much quirkier film than what it turned out to be. Harrison had little experience in business or the film industry before taking on the endeavor, so it’s not strange that he had some trouble making it work. It was officially his conflicts with his business partner that led to having to sell it, but Shanghai Surprise was where it started coming apart and never recovered.
        But I don’t think I undersold her career. I had said that she was okay- never very good, but okay- as long as she was not the lead and the film didn’t need her to carry it. That accurately describes all the of her better films with the exception of ‘Evita’. Desperately Seeking Susan and Dick Tracy were supporting roles, both of which she was playing some variation on her public image, as she was in “A League of Their Own”- her role was more like a cameo, and I think that she had very little to do with the movie’s success. Her only starring role that was not a failure was “Evita”, and that’s because she sang more than she talked. Who’s That Girl, Body of Evidence, Snake Eyes, Swept Away, that thing with Rupert Everett- all failures. I think it was accurate to say her presence in films was harmless as long as she was used sparingly. There isn’t too much evidence to suggest that she can actually act.

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        • I agree with everything you say here. Where I was quibbling was with you saying the best you could hope for was that Madonna would do no harm. She had a supporting role in Desperately Seeking Susan. but the movie was marketed as though she was the lead. That movie would be dramatically different had anyone else been cast as the mystery girl. I think Dick Tracy also benefited from having cast a femme fatale who was making headlines, music videos and had a high profile tour that tied into the movie.

          If your point was that she is marginally talented as an actress and there is almost always someone who would do a better job, I can agree with that. But from a box office perspective, Madonna could bring a lot to the table in the right project at the right time. If I’m making Dick Tracy, yeah, you bet I cast her.

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        • “Marginally talented” as an actress? I’m reluctant to give her that much credit. Tara Reid is marginally talented; Jennifer Love Hewitt is marginally talented. But they made it as far as they did starting out from scratch as nobodies. Had Madonna not already been an internationally famous pop star, it’s highly unlikely that she would have ever had the slightest bit of success as an actress. I don’t think her acting is actually any good, but I do think she has charisma and screen presence that works in certain roles as long as she doesn’t have to work too hard and you’re not asking her to just play some version of herself. She was fine as Susan, but she would have stank up the place as Roberta. She was amusing as all The Way May, but she couldn’t have played any other role in that movie with so much as marginal competence Sexy cameos are all she’s really good for. No one would have cast her even as All The Way May if she didn’t have her pop star fame propping her up. In Dick Tracy, all you really needed her to do was sing, pose, and flirt. If her role would have actually been any meatier than it was, she would have been just as bad as most of her movies. You wouldn’t say that a person had talent as a dancer just because they know three steps they’ve got down pat, and that’s about where she is as an actress.

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        • I know nothing about dancing, but if that dancer had star power that exceeded their versatility, I might say they were marginally talented. I agree with every bit of your assessment of Madonna’s talents as an actress (and the restrictive limitations on said talent). But she has star power as you note. That’s a rare commodity. In the right hands used in the right way, star power can be more important than talent. So when I say she’s “marginally talented” what I’m really talking about is that she has a screen presence. I’m not referring to her craft as an actress, but her ability to grab eyeballs. There are talented actors who lack that.

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      • That’s fair enough. There are a lot of actors in “WTHH” (and in general) who are good at what they do but don’t have that “it” factor that makes them stand out from others equally talented. If you have either one without the other, your staying power is limited. However, the more competent but less screen-grabbing performer can eek out a living on smaller parts and tv guest spots and keep a modest career going, the person who chews scenery just by being there but can’t make convincing dialogue will sooner or later will end up in the Hollywood scrap heap. I guess you could say that Madonna had a decent run in her film career considering how little she had to offer in the way of skill. I’d say she did a little better than, say, Bo Derek.

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  9. I certainly remember this movie coming out. The marketing was huge. I remember a big promotion at McDonald’s. I didn’t see it in the theater but have seen it since. I think Disney was lucky to make off with as much money as it did. I think the marketing campaign was a big reason why they did as well as they did.

    Dick Tracy was a ultimately a failure as a movie, and I regret that it was, since it has a lot going for it. I think the reason for its failure is simple: the story wasn’t good enough. Give it a better story, and everything else wrong about it (which is not much) would be entirely forgivable. It’s almost as if someone made a beautiful big-budget movie without bothering to have a script.

    I have the Madonna album that goes with the movie (not the soundtrack per se), and it’s quite good. Instead of writing his usual atonal meanderings, Steven Sondheim goes back to his roots a la Forum and writes some real songs! Sooner or Later, Back in Business, More–nice work!

    I would say that, when it comes to movies, story is the bottleneck. Good stories are hard to come up with, and many pretty good movies get by with so-so stories. Great movies need great stories. If only Dick Tracy could have had one…

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  10. dick tracy highest grossing movie on beatty career. No doubt its over 100 mill budget covered marketing costs . From business aspect not a failure.

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    • Nah, not a failure at all, I guess it just wasn’t the franchise maker that was expected, though I couldn’t imagine our banana raincoat wearing detective here being a franchise. Anyway, I like Warren Beatty’s next picture more: 1991’s “Bugsy”. Harvey Keitel as Mickey Cohen, I think only him or Bob Hoskins could pull off a Mickey Cohen. Hey Mickey!

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  11. More disappointment they expected capitalize on batman success expected same number. It still made money. In a way it was like the jack ryan movie with Chris pine. It was intended ot have sequel stand alone movie with costner character but it did great world wide but underperformed in usa. It was expceted to make more moeny then it did

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  12. Has there been a “Movies that were supposed to launch a franchise but didn’t” on “The Shadow” (another ’90s era would be blockbuster based on a pulp comic character)? I know that the WTHHT on Penelope Ann Miller covers “The Shadow” quite well:

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  13. I think it had some influence. You can definitely see some Dick Tracy in Sin City.

    I had the Dick Tracy NES game and played it a lot in 1990 and also remember the marketing. I recall liking the movie somewhat but not a lot. I haven’t watched it in a while but I think visually it’s still pretty good, especially given the technological limitations of its day. It’s a testament to the star power and Disney’s marketing that the movie did more than break even. It made 160MM and another 60MM from home video. From the studio’s perspective it paid off.

    It was unrealistic to think Dick Tracy would equal Batman. What Batman had that Dick Tracy did not was concurrent fans and vibrant activity in the core media platform. The late 1980s was some of the Batman comic’s best times – Dark Knight Returns was in 1986, The Killing Joke in 1988, Death of Jason Todd in 1989. Dick Tracy’s heyday was in the 1930s and 40s and had faded away in pop culture. He just wasn’t relevant anymore.

    I expect we’re at that point today for similarly nostalgic characters like The Pink Panther or Mr. Magoo. We saw Speed Racer bomb – 30 years after your popularity arc has fallen is just too long and Dick Tracy was going on 40-50 years.

    In a similar vein, I don’t have high hopes for the Johnny Quest movie coming out.

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    • I’m sure Dick Tracy had some influence, but I don’t know about Sin City. That movie was almost a shot for shot recreation of the comics which were inspired by film noir. There are similarities in that both movies have pulp roots and highly stylized visuals, but I think that is more likely because they come from similar backgrounds. I doubt anyone working on Sin City was using Warren Beatty as a reference point.

      You can take some dusty old property and make it work. But you need to find a way to make it relevant to modern audiences and not rely on nostalgia of Baby Boomers who aren’t likely to buy tickets. Johnny Quest has at least had modern cartoons on cable although I have no idea how popular they have been. The thing is, you can’t expect something like JQ or Dick Tracy to have the recognition factor of something like Batman or Star Wars. It’s just not the same. But at the time, Hollywood didn’t get that. It’s like when the first Superman was a hit they came out with Popeye figuring that people liked comic strip characters.

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      • Dick Tracy, The Shadow, or The Phantom

        http://forum.dvdtalk.com/12779477-post1.html

        Three different movies based on classic comic-strip and pulp characters from the 1930’s. Three movies with big budgets and big stars. Three movies that all came out in the 90’s and were meant to start a new franchise. Three movies which did not succeed in that. Though in Dick Tracy’s case that had more to do with lawyers. Which was the best movie?

        Dick Tracy: Was like the Sin City of the 90’s. Had an all star cast, high production values and was overall a pretty fun movie. Really doesn’t seem to get the respect that it deserves and is somewhat forgotten today. 4/5

        The Shadow: High production values and a good lead in Alec Baldwin. Had some cool moments but never seemed to come together like it should have. As it stands it fits in the category of I like it, but its not as good as it could be. 3/5

        The Phantom: Had a big pedigree from screenwriter Jeffrey Boam doing the script and Billy Zane made for a good lead. Catherine Zeta Jones is sexy and Kristy Swanson is cute. Has some good action scenes and solid actors, however like The Shadow it just never comes completely through like it could have and suffers from being too corny. Yes even by the standards of a man in a purple suit running around the jungle. 2.5/5

        So I vote Dick Tracy.

        P.S The Rocketeer which I love didn’t make the list since he debuted in 1982 and wasn’t a classic character from the 1930’s.

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      • I see “Dick Tracy” as a more “fantasy” version of “The Untouchables”? Both Dick Tracy and Elliot Ness are earnest, determined Chicago lawmen during the 1930s who battle a pompous, grandiose crime boss (Big Boy Caprice and Al Capone respectively).

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    • Do you remember if you liked the “Dick Tracy” NES game (if you beat it, serious congratulations)? I think it really had a great conceit, but the gameplay didn’t necessarily follow through (I think it could’ve been the “L.A. Noire” of its time). The Angry Video Game Nerd did a video on the game about 8 years ago (including footage of a young him dressed as Dick Tracy for Halloween) and he legitimately gave the game a shot, but with the shaky driving and the inexplicable snipers on the rooftops, collecting clues became too much of a task (I know I couldn’t do anything with the game).

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      • I know I beat it, but I don’t remember exactly how. There were a lot of frustrating things about that game to be sure. I recall moving very, very slowly and shooting characters when they showed up at the very edge of the screen before they “saw” me and started shooting.

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        • Thanks for replying, and that’s cool you beat the game. Like The Angry Video Game Nerd, I had issues with the snipers outdoors, the weird driving, and the fact that Tracy left the clues on a notepad in his office (He may be able to recall them from memory, but I’m not Dick Tracy). I did like the indoor combat system though, since there were innocent people you couldn’t hurt or you’d lose life if it happened. Again though, I haven’t played the game in decades, and if I didn’t viewed The Nerd video, my memory on the game likely wouldn’t be sharp.

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  14. 10 Huge Oscar-Winning Movies That Nobody Really Likes

    Dick Tracy (1990)

    http://whatculture.com/film/10-huge-oscar-winning-movies-that-nobody-really-likes.php/2

    Oscar Wins: Best Original Song, Best Makeup, Best Art Direction (3)

    Dick Tracy is a picture that managed to take home three Academy Awards back in 1991, and was nominated for a further 7. Granted, the Oscars it nabbed were of the musical and technical varieties, but still… who expects an admittedly two-dimensional and noticeably naff movie like this one to have so many Oscars under its belt?

    This isn’t a film that has aged well at all, nor is it one that many people seem to have really heard or seen. Based on the comic book of the same name and featuring a purposely luminous color palette, it feels like a tedious affair in retrospect. Clearly the filmmakers tried to do something different, but it doesn’t quite work (a fact made obvious given that you never hear anyone talking about Dick Tracy: The Movie; this film barely “exists”).

    Warren Beatty was too old to play Dick Tracy, for one thing, and the film totally missed the mark in the humor department: it’s just not funny. Nowadays, who does a film like Dick Tracy even appeal to? Who would set out to watch it? It’s like a total relic out of time, and – in all honesty – has dated rather horrifically. Madonna, as expected, is cringe-worthy.

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  15. A Dick Tracy sequel? Beatty wants it.

    http://officialfan.proboards.com/thread/541650/tracy-sequel-beatty-wants

    Warren Beatty’s long-developing film about legendary director Howard Hughes is finally preparing to hit theaters, eyeing a fall / winter release this year — that’s excellent news, not only because the actor hasn’t had a major role since 1998’s Bulworth, but because the Hughes film has long been a passion project for Beatty. But the untitled Hughes film isn’t the only project he has in mind, as Beatty is “very serious” about possibly returning to one of his older, beloved roles. Unfortunately, it’s not a sequel to The Parallax View.

    Beatty is mulling a sequel to Dick Tracy, the colorful noir in which he played the eponymous comic strip detective. Though reviews were mixed, Dick Tracy made a hefty sum at the box office, thanks in part to a great cast that included Al Pacino and Dick Van Dyke. Per Variety, producer Arnon Milchan accepted the American Legends of Cinema Award from Beatty at CinemaCon, where the New Regency exec revealed that the actor / director is “very serious” about a Dick Tracy sequel.

    When Beatty himself was asked about the prospect after the awards ceremony, he said, “I’m serious about it, but I am slow about these things.” For his stature, the star of classics like Shampoo and Bonnie & Clyde has had a fairly atypical career, appearing in only four films since Dick Tracy hit theaters in 1990. Beatty may take his time with projects, but Milchan says that they are discussing the sequel and it could be ready to hit theaters in just two years. As for the 26-year delay, Beatty has considered making a sequel for years, but it only became possible in 2013 when he cleared up a dispute over the film’s rights.

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  16. “Dick Tracy” is a great film, with it’s art direction, costume design, cinematography, music, and casting. It’s just not a very good movie, with it’s lackluster story, and clashing acting styles.

    “What Can You Lose?” should be a standard classic. So heartbreaking, so gorgeous.

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