Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Michael
Mann's film "Public Enemies", which opened across the U.S. and Canada today.
(Photo: Universal Pictures)
In 1933: The Gilded Age Of Gangster, And A
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" promises so much but sadly delivers so very
little -- a story about the Great Depression Era's beloved American gangster
John Dillinger is astonishingly lethargic, with no-frills performances from the
usually reliable Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Mr. Depp plays Dillinger
with cool confidence, charisma and an androgynous feel that pulses through all
he does, while Mr. Bale is straitjacketed as FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis, a
dogged procedural G-man looking to keep the slippery Dillinger behind bars once
and for all. In the 1930s the nascent Federal Bureau Of Investigation
headed by J. Edgar Hoover (played here with mildly amusing affectation by
Billy Crudup) was outmatched by the gangster sect and
a burgeoning national crime wave had swept the nation and enraptured a
fascinated and admiring American public.
Based on Bryan Burrough's novel, "Public Enemies" should be riveting but instead
is a largely pedestrian exercise. The screenplay (written by Ronan
Bennett, Mr. Mann and Ann Biderman) is one of the major reasons why.
Loaded with clichés and stunningly weak dialogue, the script doesn't leap off
the screen nor does it chart any coherent course. In addition, the
real-life romance between Dillinger and Billie Freschette (played by "La Vie En
Rose" Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) lacks conviction and consequently the
chemistry between Mr. Depp and Miss Cotillard is left wanting. It's as if
the writers force fed the romantic angle into the narrative in the hopes of
broadening the film's already narrow horizons beyond its expected predominantly
male audience. As a result Miss Cotillard's talents are wasted.
She's had much better days than this display.
Where Michael Mann is concerned, not only is the misuse of Miss Cotillard too
bad, it's disappointing, since the director has had stronger women characters on
display in such films as "Heat" (Diane Venora and Ashley Judd's roles come to
"Miami Vice" (Naomie Harris, Gong Li and
Elizabeth Berkley). While this reviewer is unsure of Miss Freschette's
actual character, the big-screen version is robotic and mindlessly obedient. There's
a lack of development of the character despite the presence of Ms. Biderman on
the writing team.
"Public Enemies", set in 1933, appears repetitive, using snippets of dialogue
we've already heard in prior Mann films like the aforementioned "Heat": "we're
not here for your money, we're here for the bank's money", spoken during a bank
robbery headlined by Dillinger and other gangsters including Baby Face Nelson
(Stephen Dorff), someone Dillinger is constantly wary of. There are also
the music pieces that are borrowed from
"Heat", "The Insider" and "Collateral" from talented musician Lisa
Gerrard. We've also seen the same set pieces before, and the methodology
for the director is familiar: highly proficient men trapped in circumstances
that through their own rigorous commitment to trade and craft are inevitably
undone by. Mr. Depp says that "I'm not going anywhere" during a moment
with Miss Cotillard -- a line which signals his single-mindedness, his
fearlessness -- and his understanding that his criminal endeavors are a one-way
ticket to the end of the rainbow.
The film is an affectionate look at what gangsters mean to the movies -- there's
a James Cagney impersonator and a scene depicting Clark Gable's role as a
gangster in the 1934 film "Manhattan Melodrama", a perfect mirror upon which
Dillinger projects himself, as a romantic (and romanticized) figure: slick,
vainglorious, magnetic and cheeky. As a corollary, "Public Enemies" is
astutely juxtaposed today at a time when a severe recession is in full effect
and the kind of gangsters who rule are people like Bernard Madoff, sentenced two
days ago to 150 years prison time for bilking billions of dollars from
investors. One can't imagine a glossy film being made about Mr. Madoff,
Ivan Boesky, Kenneth Lay or Michael Milken and company, even if it is as showy
and empty as "Public Enemies" ultimately is.
Mr. Mann has one thing going for him in "Public Enemies" however, and that's his
trademark resonant vision. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("Heat") shoots virtually
the entire film with high definition digital video cameras -- a risky device for
a period drama like this one -- but he pulls it off, bringing the drab 1930s in
Depression Era America stunningly alive. Shoot-out sequences feel real and
look as if they are shot so naturally in the high-definition digital style.
There are other beautiful shots and the smaller cameras give the film a certain
amount of mobility for some scenes but the stale nature of the dialogue is the
bulwark that keeps the film at barely mediocre mode. Since the brilliance
Insider", Mr. Mann's ability to effectively tell true stories on the big screen has
waned. "Ali" was a mild disappointment at best, and "Public Enemies" is
an even greater one.
With: John Ortiz (very good here), Stephen Lang, Channing Tatum, James Russo,
Leelee Sobieski, Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeff Shannon and Diana Krall.
"Public Enemies" is rated R by the Motion
Picture Of America for gangster violence and some language. The film's
running time is two hours and 20 minutes.
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