Al Pacino, Warren Beatty

Imagine a beautifully restored old car, no engine, sitting there looking fine, getting no place fast. That's what this film is like.

Produced and directed by Beatty (he also has the title role), it features deftly surreal sets (credit production designer Richard Sylbert) and colorful clothes (credit costume designer Milena Canonero).

Pacino, as crime boss Big Boy Caprice, is a marvel of malevolent energy in a rollicking performance marred only by the fact that it resembles Jack Nicholson's similar turn in Batman. Dustin Hoffman adds an equally felicitous bit as Mumbles, one of the usual suspects in the Chester Gould comic strip that is the original source material for the film. (Hearing Hoffman mumble, "I didn't do it" 20 times or so in rapid succession may be the film's best moment.)

Also strewn about arc Dick Van Dyke as a district attorney, James Caan as a stubborn gangster, Charles Durning as the police chief and Glenne (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) Headley as Tracy's girlfriend, Tess Trueheart.

But Beatty slows it all down by making Tracy such a limp, socially inept kind of hero. He looks jowly and wan, and every time Tracy gets into an action scene, you can hear the cries of "Stunt double!"

Perhaps more crucial are Beatty's gaffes as director. Having landed Madonna to play Big Boy's reluctant moll, cabaret singer Breathless Mahoney, and having secured Stephen Sondheim to write three songs for her, he never lets one song be sung in toto onscreen. Instead, he continually interrupts what are, in flashes, sumptuous production numbers for montage sequences of himself firing his gun or looking tough. The music is trashed, Madonna's performance is diminished, the story slowed.

Beatty extracts tantalizingly sharp moments from Madonna as the smug vamp; she's still essentially doing her neo-Mae West riff, but she's fun to watch. As for her onscreen rapport with Beatty, they seem to have left the chemistry between them in the locker room. Nor does Beatty fare well with the colorless Seymour Cassel and James Keane—two nondescript actors in a cast of stars—as Tracy's right-hand men Sam Catchem and Pal Patton.

Beatty gets on best, in fact, with 11-year-old Charlie (Men Don't Leave) Korsmo as the orphan Tracy adopts.

Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.. whose scripts include Top Gun, have a home-run slugger sort of talent, smashing one once in a while, as when Beatty asks Madonna if she's grieving for her recently rubbed-out boy friend, and she replies, poutingly, "I'm wearing black underwear."

More often they whiff, as they do in Pacino's puerile line, "I'm having a thought! It's coming! It's coming! It's gone."

Justice triumphs only in a technical sense. The villains have given the movie what life it had, and they're the ones you'll remember. Beatty and his-drab cohort were along for a ride that never really got started. Who would have thought that Dick Tracy would be the one to teach the lesson that crime does too pay after all. (PG)