The Popcorn Reel
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Enemies

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 Thankful Public
By Omar P.L. Moore/  SHARE
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 mind) and "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 of "The 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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