The Untouchables

The Untouchables

The Costner film-of-the-week was The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma. That might mean something to you, and it might not, but as directors go, he’s a pretty good one. As far as I can tell this film was the linchpin in Kevin Costner’s successful movie career. He hadn’t really been much of a leading man before it was released in 1987, but after going toe-to-toe with James Bond and Vito Corleone it was clear that he had established himself enough to begin headlining his acting roles from there on out. The following year he would star in Bull Durham, and the year after that was when he did Field of Dreams.

Side note of the week: I’ve had a few requests/inquiries on Bull Durham, so I decided to blitzkrieg my way through it this week as well, and I’ve decided that, after having written an entire review on Field of Dreams which relates baseball to church, there is no way I can write a review on Bull Durham which, holy mackerel Andy, is a movie that relates baseball to sex!


What I found most interesting about The Untouchables is its place in the larger legend surrounding Prohibition era Chicago, Al Capone, and Eliot Ness. Back in 1957, just months before his memoirs were published, Ness died in relative obscurity, never seeing how popular his stories would become as they reverberated through the next 60 years in various forms. The book that Ness wrote was finished by a co-author who added a considerable amount of fictionalized material in order to make it more intriguing and entertaining. Because Ness wasn’t around to comment on (or refute) any of it, and because the book went on to sell over a million copies, eventually spawning two separate television adaptations, comic books, detective novels, cartoons, and this Costner film—the truth of what actually happened between the Federal Agent and the Notorious Gangster has gotten so woven together with the legend that it’s a futile endeavor to try unravelling them completely. The result is that we have been left with a good, old fashioned, morality tale about how a small team of outsider good guys takes down a powerful crime syndicate. It’s the Seven Samurai, it’s the Magnificent Seven, it’s the A-Team… it’s Frodo, Samwise, Meriadoc, and Peregrin; it’s Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael.

In De Palma’s iteration of the tale it’s the Federal Agent, the Nerdy Accountant, the Veteran City Cop, and the Skilled Rookie – played by a young Andy Garcia. The City Cop, Jim Malone is the anchor of the group, the standout performance, and it won Sean Connery his only, yet well deserved, Academy Award for the role. Something also has to be said about De Niro’s rather amazing performance as Al Capone. He plays the character like he was born to do so, unleashing his full range of bravado in only a few scenes, and yet it’s enough to make it feel as if he’s looming in the background of the entire movie. He’s fearless, foul, and full of himself in all the best ways.

With all that said, there’s no really deep metaphor here, nothing too terribly profound after digging around in the plot for awhile—at least I don’t think there is. And there doesn’t have to be. It’s a solid presentation of good guys versus bad guys, cops versus robbers, Costner versus Capone. Yet even so, there’s one really great gem that can be mined from the excavation of this film—the way it tells the story of the team coming together. Each member of the team is completely different, each one is inadequate by themselves, each one needs the others in order to overcome their own flaws and defeat their sworn enemy. It’s ironic, but also a stroke of genius, that it’s Capone who provides commentary on this during one of the film’s most memorable scenes…

What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork… Looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.

And now we’re back to baseball again.


The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard

This past week my Costner marathon took me to a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away… Just kidding. It only took me to 1992, but I actually had not seen this one before, and it was written by one of my favorite screenwriters – Lawrence Kasdan. At last count, Kasdan has written more Star Wars films than George Lucas, or anyone else for that matter, including my favorite The Empire Strikes Back. He was also the writer for one of my favorite westerns – Silverado – as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s quite a diverse collection of films in his trophy case, including The Bodyguard.

Like I said, I had never seen this movie before, though I was very aware of it because of its music which has immortalized five of Whitney Houston’s hit singles on what is still the best-selling film soundtrack of all time. If you were looking to set the mood for a romantic evening back in the 90s, or you were pining for a lost love – you didn’t have to look any further than Whitney’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” which was a remake of Dolly Parton’s original tune, yet arguably the best recorded version of the song. Side note: I was neither pining for lost love nor attempting to generate romance in 1992, as I had only recently discovered comic books… “two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by,” you might say. 

So anyway, unlike the previous Costner films I’ve reviewed so far, I went into this one with a fresh set of eyes, and a desire to finally see this movie which had eluded my view for so many years. And I was glad I did.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Whitney Houston dons the guise of a mega-famous singer named Rachel Marron who I would imagine isn’t that different from her real self at the time – when she was at the height of her career. Because of threats from an unknown stalker her manager hires Frank Farmer (Costner), a former secret service agent under the Reagan administration. What is not as straightforward as the plot, is the dynamic relationship between these two characters. There’s a lot of grit in the details of what ends up becoming the love story of two people who are as different as two people can be. They are complete opposites who journey together long enough to reach a place of complete trust with one another. Kasdan reverses the traditional order of the classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’ love story here by taking his characters first to a place of passionate romance, then to friendship, then to understanding, admiration, and trust. I’m not sure that it works quite as well on screen as the traditional avenue of trust, admiration, understanding, friendship, and then romance, but what does work is the complicated messiness of it all, the realness of the emotions spilling out of Costner and Houston, and the paradoxical beauty of two worlds colliding, smashing each other to pieces, and then being rebuilt into something new.

One of the things I really appreciate about older movies is that the Christological metaphors are usually not as subtle or as hidden as they often seem to be in newer films. That’s definitely the case with The Bodyguard. While the plot, as mentioned, is a non-traditional love story between two opposites, the wider meta-narrative is a compact declaration of one of the main themes in all of Scripture – best summed up by the Apostle Paul when he instructed the men he was addressing to, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” If you suspect I might be reaching a little too hard for this metaphor, take note of the very end of the film which closes with the prayer of a priest holding up a cross and echoing a portion of the 23rd Psalm, “even though we may pass through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us, guiding and protecting us.” Houston and Costner, having both grown up in the Baptist Church, knew exactly what movie they were making, and how timeless a story it really was.


Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

It was the summer of 1987. All the stories about baseball seem to begin with reminiscing about what year it was, so I figure I’ll start with that. It was the summer of 1987, and the Hazelwood Hoosiers baseball team were celebrating their championship victory over the Pee Wee League. My dad was one of the coaches which makes it especially sentimental when I think back on it now. We had gone undefeated at 15-0 and quickly swept the tourney. Having reached the end of my three years in the league, and about to turn the grizzled old age of 10, there was nothing left for this right-fielder to achieve. So I decided to retire while I was at the peak of my career. For the next several years I just kicked back and enjoyed watching occasional games with my dad, or going to see the minor league Indianapolis Indians play at the old Bush Stadium from time to time. I even had a decent collection of cards and a Colorado Rockies cap. In a time when DVR recording wasn’t yet invented, the World Series always took precedence on our living room television set during evenings in the Fall. My memories of those times are all mingled together with campfires and the Charle Brown Halloween special. Even as I grew into my teenage years baseball was still magical.


Then The Strike happened. The Major League Baseball strike of August 1994 became the longest strike in MLB history, and it killed the postseason and the World Series – something that had not happened in 90 years. It was all about money of course… Millionaire players and millionaire owners were fighting over who was going to have just a little bit more. It was a disgusting display of greed that played out over months and laid bare an ugliness that had been festering below the surface of the game for some time I suppose. Eventually it was settled so everyone could go back to being millionaires again. But the damage had been done, and for me, there was no going back. When that summer was over, and the dust had settled, my love of baseball had been shattered. What was sacred had been profaned, trampled upon, and broken beyond repair. There was no longer any magic in it for me. Maybe I took it too personal, but I felt as if something had been stolen from me. That’s what greed does to things that are beautiful – it takes them away. It destroys them.

Then I saw The Sandlot one morning and a part of that magic found its way back into my heart. It was like uncovering an old treasure to discover that there were some movies out there about baseball that were somehow able to capture and contain the essence of the game – the purity that exists underneath when all the other stuff is pealed away. These films are idealizations of the values, history, and sentiments that baseball conjures up for us. There was one in particular that my 10th grade English teacher showed to us in class the year following the end of The Strike – Field of Dreams – and it is, perhaps, the purest and most elegant example of this.

Field of Dreams told me a story about what baseball really was at its core – not a sport – but a religious experience.

The film opens with Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella standing in the middle of his Iowa cornfield hearing a voice. You probably already know what the voice said to him. It’s been echoing in my mind all week. “If you build it, he will come.” Sometimes, my mind likes to play puzzles and alter the words for me, so I end up hearing things like, “if you put it in the fridge, it will get cold,” or, “if you do the laundry now, you don’t have to do it tomorrow,” and my personal favorite, “if you let the dog poo in the park when no one is looking, you don’t have to pick it up.” But anyway, I’m getting off track a little bit. Back to Field of Dreams… It’s interesting to note that the morning after Ray first hears “the voice” he walks into the kitchen to discover that his daughter is watching an old black and white movie. We catch a brief glimpse of James Stewart from 1950, insisting that he’s talking to an invisible six foot rabbit named Harvey. Ray shuts the movie off, insisting to his daughter that it’s no laughing matter to hear something invisible talking to you. Eventually Ray has a vision that instructs him to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. He proceeds to do so with the support of his wife and daughter, provoking the ire of the townsfolk and his brother-in-law in the process. Once completed, the field becomes a sanctuary in which players of the past come to find redemption and peace. You can interpret all this in many ways I suppose, but I like to think of Ray as a prophet of sorts, listening to the voice of God and obediently carrying out his instructions. The Bible is full of people hearing God’s voice, doing what He says even though it sounds crazy, and causing the people who are watching on the sidelines to lose their minds. As Ray says during the opening monologue, “Until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.” Along the way he hears a few other things from “the voice,” and it leads him to find James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster – both playing the roles of aging acolytes in search of redemption themselves.

The beauty of the allegory here is that it’s not just in the film – it’s in baseball itself – and the movie is just a parable that’s showing us what has always been there. The ball field is like a church building. There’s the stands, the outfield, the infield, and there’s home base. These all mirror the essential parts of temples going back to ancient times. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem once had an outer court, an inner court, and a Holy Place – and a Most Holy Place. Many of our churches today have a parking lot, a foyer, a sanctuary, and a communion table and baptistry at the center. In these places of worship, as on the ball field, people, friends, and families from the community gather together to participate in the same experience. There’s a structure to it all. There’s a rhythm. There is a set of rules that have been agreed upon – and there are guidelines that have been handed down to us from previous generations to show us how to follow them. There are emblems that give meaning, focus, form, and provide function for what is happening. In baseball we call these emblems the ball, the bat, the bases, the gloves. In the Church they are the Cross on the wall, the trays that hold the Communion Bread, the cups that contain the juice. Everyone has their place. Everyone has their own position to play. Everyone participates in some way. There’s the pitcher, the catcher, the batter, the basemen, the shortstop, the outfielders, the coaches, and the Ump. No one messes with the Ump. Even the spectators who aren’t directly playing in the game are invested in its outcome. There’s an energy to it all, an invisible force that pulls everyone together and puts them all on the same page for a few hours or so. It’s a spiritual experience. In its purest form there is no competition – only camaraderie, fellowship, and sharing time together – that’s the original intent anyway. It’s not really a game. It’s a sacred dance of worship. And in these sacred places, in the midst of the experience, encapsulated by memories, is an awareness of our connection to those who were here before us – those who shared time together and observed the rituals faithfully… those who found redemption on the field.

Like Ray Kinsella with his baseball field, we participate in our rituals as a means of re-connecting with our Father as well. And we do it to try and better understand what redemption really is, what it means, and how it will, in the end, take us all back to home base.

Sunkmanitu Tanka Owaci

Sunkmanitu Tanka Owaci

This past week I continued my Kevin Costner-athon by devoting a couple of evenings to Dances with Wolves. It took me two nights to finish it because I decided to watch the extended version which is nearly four hours long, and my couch is as old as this movie – so it can only accommodate my rear for two hours at a time before I go numb in the hindquarters. That’s probably more information than you need, but oh well. Regardless, the two-night viewing time was worth every minute. There is a shorter version of it, but I highly recommend going the extra mile for this one – it adds a great deal of information and rounds out the main characters quite nicely. And the movie has been around for 27 years, so if you’re really planning to watch it, you’re probably a bit of a film nerd like myself anyway, and in that case, why not watch the longer version?

I don’t know where to begin with this film, so I’ll just launch in with the statement that it’s a masterpiece all around, in every way, in every sense of the word. It absolutely deserves every one of the 7 Academy Awards it was given back in its day.

Ok, with that out of the way…

The simple truth is that they do not create movies in this way anymore. It was filmed just prior to the revolution that made the use of computer generated images a viable option in film-making, which means if it was being made today, the scenes where they’re riding horses alongside stampedes of buffalo would be done by computers and graphic artists who are sitting comfortably in cushioned chairs, sipping iced cafe breves – rather than by insane camera jockeys in the back of pickup trucks that are bouncing along the prairie at top speed to capture live video of an actual heard of beasts being corralled by dudes wearing loin cloths.

The way this movie was filmed is complimented by the attention that was given to meticulous authenticity. It’s in everything you see; from the weapons, to the clothing, to the council fires in the chief’s lodge – it’s all an accurate depiction of the Lakota Sioux in the late 1800s. It’s also in everything you hear. Pretty Shield, the wife of Chief Ten Bears, was played by Doris Leader Charge (1930-2001), a Lakota woman who lived her entire life on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. She was also a professor of Lakota language at Sinte Gleska University, and her life’s work has been elegantly preserved in the authentic Lakota being spoken in the film. Without her influence on Costner and presence on the set, Dances with Wolves would have been an entirely different movie.

Costner, who also directed the film, plays Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Civil War veteran who is sent alone into Indian territory and takes up residence at an abandoned fort on the frontier. The story takes you slowly through the transformation that happens as he gradually leaves behind his native culture and adopts the life of the Sioux. A note on symbolism: the closer that Dunbar gets to making friends with the wolf Two Socks, the closer he gets to becoming more like one of the Lakota. The less said about the details of his death as a United States soldier and his resurrection as a Sioux warrior the better. Nothing I can say will capture the beauty of how the story is told.

My love and appreciation for this movie is, admittedly, the result of a great personal bias. It’s definitely in my top 10 favorite films. I think it’s true for all of us, that the movies we love the most are the ones that hit us deeply in the personal areas of the heart. That’s why I love this movie too. It was a movie my parents took me to see in the theater when I was 11 years old. I still remember blushing and my mom telling me not to look at the screen during the love scene (which is pretty innocuous by today’s standards), and I also remember my dad laughing out loud when Kevin Costner showed his bare ass. I don’t know why that’s funny, but I laughed when I saw it too this time. Like father like son, I guess. On a more somber note, it’s a movie my grandmother loved and spoke highly of with tears in her eyes. I really miss her, and I wish I could go back and talk to her about it now. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I connect with the parts of the story that deal with transformation and cultural metamorphosis. My heart and soul have inextricably tied it to experiences in my own life (both past and present) that reflect elements in the narrative. I obviously don’t know what it was really like to live back in those times. I don’t know what it’s like to be a soldier, or to have a wife, or to be shot at, or to wonder if my race is going to be wiped out by oppression and greed. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a teepee, get my water from a river, and cook every meal I eat over a fire. I don’t know what any of those things are like. But what I do know is how scary, how awesome, and how beautiful life can become when you leave behind everything you know as safe and familiar and comfortable, and pray that the strangers you meet will accept and love you, and make you feel like you belong with them. And I know what it’s like to have that prayer answered.