`DICK TRACY'' falls into a long tradition of movies borrowing from comic strips. They have varied a great deal in quality and character - from ``Li'l Abner'' and ``Popeye,'' on the humorous end of the spectrum, to ``Superman'' and ``Batman'' on the action-oriented end. But it's no accident that comic-book subjects have frequently appealed to filmmakers looking for new ways of using their medium. Like comics, movies tell stories through combinations of images and words. In addition, movies are well suited to both the realistic and the purely imaginative aspects of comic-book art. They're very good at depicting human beings in a recognizably real world. And they're just as good - using animation or special effects - at showing unreal characters, from talking animals to anthropomorphized objects, in a world as fantastic as the storyteller's imagination can make it.
Like most recent comics-inspired films, ``Dick Tracy'' blends the real and the fantastic. Its characters are played by real people (no ``toons'' in the ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit'' style) who are governed, at least partly, by real-world rules of physics and psychology. Their environment, by contrast, is aggressively cartoonish - its proportions out of whack, its textures slick and slippery, its colors so bright they're more belligerent than dazzling.
Mixing reality and fantasy is no easy task, and it's clear that ``Dick Tracy'' director Warren Beatty worked hard to pull off the stunt. So hard that he didn't concentrate very strongly on his two-note performance in the tough-talking title role, or on the small but humane touches that could have made his film as effective for the emotions as it is (some of the time) for the eye.
On a technical level, ``Dick Tracy'' is all a summer blockbuster is supposed to be - fast, flashy, and jammed with action. On a human level, though, it's a dud. You watch the hero save his friends and wallop his enemies, but you rarely care whether he succeeds or not. And you know he will succeed, since the story is as programmed and predictable as its hero.
The plot is designed to show off a maximum number of characters inspired by Chester Gould's popular comic strip. Tracy woos Tess Trueheart and resists the wiles of Breathless Mahoney while chasing the crime boss Big Boy Caprice, dodging the treacherous piano player 88 Keys, helping an orphan called Kid, and foiling an underworld populated by crooks with names like Pruneface, Little Face, Mumbles, and Flattop, who look or sound like their monickers.
The story has little point except slam-bang excitement, but it's worth mentioning that Tracy is shown as a maverick cop who breaks police rules whenever he feels like it. While he's not Dirty Harry, exactly, it's a sign of the times that Mr. Beatty and company give their hero a ``law and order at any cost'' mentality. What audiences will make of this, if anything, will be interesting to observe.
The occasional sparks of real liveliness in ``Dick Tracy'' come mostly from its performances in supporting roles. Glenn Headly makes Tess as winsome as she is wistful; Madonna is a striking Breathless even though her dialogue rests on smarmy doubl'e entendres; Al Pacino is weirdly brilliant - and just about unrecognizable - as the wicked crime boss.
In smaller parts, Beatty peppers the cast with faces from his own past movies: Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard from ``Bonnie and Clyde,'' for instance, and even Dustin Hoffman (a surprisingly loud Mumbles) from ``Ishtar.''
Comparisons between `Dick Tracy'' and the megahit ``Batman'' are inevitable, and generally favor the earlier film, despite its own failings. There's nothing in the ``Tracy'' rogues gallery to equal Jack Nicholson's fierce performance as the Joker, and Beatty (who intelligently directed ``Reds'' almost a decade ago) doesn't manage to equal Tim Burton's manic visual style.
On the other hand, while both movies have scores by Danny Elfman, the Stephen Sondheim songs in ``Tracy'' have more weight than the Prince ditties that ``Batman'' blared - a virtue which, ironically, may prove a liability with the young audience that ``Tracy'' clearly considers its main target.