A True-Blue, Red-Blooded Hero

Forget the hype. Now for the real question: How's the damn movie?

Answer: Pretty darn swell.

Dick Tracy is a class act: simple, stylish, sophisticated, sweet. This comic strip come to life is not like any other movie Warren Beatty has made, and yet his personality is stamped on every carefully considered frame. Whatever else he may be, he's a man of considerable taste, a classical moviemaker with a respect for old-fashioned Hollywood craftsmanship; it's the tension between Beatty's innate, restraint as a filmmaker and the larger-than-life, primarycolor exuberance of the Dick Tracy legend that gives the movie its unique tone. Who else would stage an action montage to the slow rhythms of a Stephen Sondheim song?

The movie has a Broadway breeziness: the gangster story zips along with the tap-dancing rhythms of a musical; the tommy-gun mayhem and cartoon fistfights are as harmless and artifice loving as production numbers. Beatty bucks the bone-crunching style of other summer movies with his fancy-footwork editing. By never lingering too long on anything, he never wears you out. "Dick Tracy" is always light on its feet, and it risks leaving you a bit hungry: you may want to linger a little more on the wonderful sets of this make-believe '30s city, get another glimpse of the, grotesque hood named Little Face, or wish that Madonna's Breathless Mahoney got to sing one of her numbers with out interruption. But it's a strategic reticence. Beatty is a nouvelle cuisine chef serving up a meat-and-potatoes American myth: the essence is there, without an ounce of fat. The movie doesn't leave you overstuffed. In a season of brutalist film assaults, its innocence and elegance are tonic.

Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. provide a fleet, serviceable story to place their hero in both mortal and romantic peril. The true-bluecrimestopper, sporting a yellow overcoat, is pitted against crime czar Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), a fuhrerlike hunchback with a penchant for misquoting historical figures ("If you ain't for the people, you can't buy the I people. .. Lincoln"). Beatty's foursquare Tracy is resolute and fearless fighting crime,, but he falls into a familiar Beattian fluster in the presence of women. Can he remain loyal to the stalwart Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) in the face of nightclub chanteuse Breathless Mahoney's heavy-breathing seduction? Can he deal with the responsibility of raising a cute orphan kid (Charlie Korsmo) while saving his city from the underworld threat?

Team spirit It's a deliberately generic comic-strip story, featuring a corrupt D.A. (Dick Van Dyke), a damsel in distress and every other cliche of the genre. How deeply can we care about what happens? Not very, frankly, but the plot is not the point. The fun of "Dick Tracy" is all on the surface: in the picture-book images, ravishingly photographed by Vittorio Storaro; in such wacky gangster gargoyles as William Forsythe's Flattop and R. G. Armstrong's Pruneface, dreamed up by makeup artists John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler; in the magical matte paintings, Milena Canonero's costumes and Richard Sylbert's bold production design; in Danny Elfman's rich score and Sondheim's witty songs. And not least of all in the performers, whoenterinto the team spirit with comic book gusto. Dustin Hoffman contributes a pricelessly funny cameo as the deathly white Mumbles, an invaluable informant incapable of uttering a distinguishable word. Pacino, never known for comedy and almost unrecognizable under his makeup, turns Big Boy into a memorably funny slimeball, issuing commands in guttural spurts, his words trying to keep pace with his twisted, overheated thoughts. Don't overlook Headly's subtly luminous performance as Tess: she imbues a stock good girl role with spirit and intelligence. Quivering with lust, double-entendres and bad intentions, Madonna is smashingly unsubtle as the femme fatale. Lit like a '30s glamour queen, she strikes archetypal vamp poses: part Monroe, part Dietrich, and when she sings, more than a little Bernadette Peters.

Beatty's Tracy isn't the bulldog Chester Gould drew--he's much more charming, a square who's inadvertently debonair. It's fun to see Beatty in an action role again. You're aware that he's not using all his acting talents, just as you're aware that "Dick Tracy" is a holiday from the complexities of movies like "Reds." There's a built-in limit to the satisfaction any comic-strip movie can give, and "Dick Tracy" doesn't transcend the genre. But this is no ready-to-wear movie; it's the work of a cinematic couturier. Take it for what it is: a simple gift, consummately wrapped.