`The Untouchables' recalls Prohibition years - and '50s TV

``I don't think violence is something that's being used very much in cinema now,'' filmmaker Brian De Palma told me recently. ``If anything, cinema is very conservative now - kind of tame. ... These are the Reagan years, and everything's very conservative.'' This doesn't mean De Palma himself has suddenly gone ``tame'' on us. His new movie, ``The Untouchables,'' takes its cue from the most memorably violent TV series of the 1950s - and includes some violent spasms of its own, from bloody shootouts to a revenge scene featuring Al Capone and a deadly baseball bat.

Unlike some past De Palma films, though, ``The Untouchables'' makes some of its strongest impressions in sequences that build suspense and characterization without readily resorting to mayhem. When violence does burst out - as it does, don't get me wrong - it serves to show the true colors of deceptively ingratiating people like Capone, whose oily insistence that he's ``just a businessman'' might be persuasive if we didn't see his evilness break forth before our eyes.

Like the TV show of the same name, ``The Untouchables'' is based on the real-life adventures of federal agent Eliot Ness and a hardy band of bootleg-busters (called ``untouchable'' because they couldn't be bribed) who enforced the Prohibition laws more than 50 years ago. David Mamet's screenplay is shaped like a genre piece in the classic ``Seven Samurai'' tradition: Ness gathers the members of his gang one at a time, choosing each for a special trait or talent, and leads them in a prolonged war against an army of ruthless bad guys.

The movie soars highest when De Palma engages in the purely visual storytelling that he considers (rightly) his strongest suit as a director. Two episodes stand out most vividly: a stunningly long shot in which the camera tensely stalks a character through a house, and an extended montage sequence leading to a shootout in a train station. Both work spendidly as suspense-builders, and both are put together with textbook discipline and economy. (Speaking of textbooks, the montage scene draws heavily from Eisenstein's much-analyzed ``Potemkin,'' indicating a new direction in De Palma's penchant for borrowing - he used to steal mostly from Hitchcock.)

``The Untouchables'' would be a stronger film if Mamet's screenplay were as tight and hardhitting as De Palma's best visual flourishes. Another weak link is Kevin Costner's performance in the leading role. While he wasn't exactly Rambo in the old TV series, Robert Stack effortlessly gave Ness a lonely, driven quality that lent the show much of its mood. Costner does something of the same but has to work awfully hard at it. The character needs a more naturally imposing actor.

Only praise goes to Sean Connery as Ness's crusty lieutenant, though - you'd never guess it's a seasoned James Bond impersonator playing this quietly aging cop - and to Robert De Niro as Al Capone, the most appalling villain of the story. Smaller parts are capably handled by Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith.

The film is rated R.

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