“Dick Tracy” was disappointing relative to expectations in 1990, but that only means we can now declare it an underrated cult classic. This ambitious adaptation of the 1930s-era hard-boiled detective comic strip had a budget of nearly $50 million and was packed with massive movie stars like Warren Beatty, Madonna, and Al Pacino — all to bring to the surreal world of the titular yellow duster-clad flatfoot to life.
James Caan has a somewhat minor role in this massive ensemble full of legends in cartoonish prosthetics. He plays Spaldoni, one of the many warring gangsters inhabiting the hyper-colored art-deco underworld. Tracy wants to bust Pacino’s gangland head honcho, Big Boy, and to do that he gets entangled with Madonna’s stylish take on a femme fatale.
In retrospect, the great thing about “Dick Tracy” is that its bold aesthetic now feels like a template for modern graphic novel adaptations like “Sin City” or even “The Watchmen.” Alongside Tim Burton’s fanciful “Batman” in 1989, these were the first two films to rest go for that over-the-top comic book noir aesthetic. All the “Dick Tracy” sets are practical, and the whole movie is awash in only four colors borrowed from Chester Gould’s comic strip that was originally printed exclusively in red, green, purple, and yellow, to save money at the presses.