Friday, July 3, 2009

Movie Review: "Public Enemies"

There's a scene in Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" when John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) woos a young woman by telling her "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars and you...what else do you need to do?"

I have a feeling that the people most-disappointed by Mann's fantastic crime drama will be those who want to know a little bit more about what made America's Public Enemy #1 tick. Anyone looking for a deep psychological profile or for any other hint of what urged him to rob banks is going to be a bit disappointed.

For those who simply want to see a crackling crime drama told by Hollywood's best action director and wonderfully-acted by one of the world's biggest movie stars, "Public Enemies" is about as good as it gets this summer. What Mann has created is nothing we haven't seen before--it's simply a cops-and-robbers tale told to perfection. It may not be Mann's greatest picture, but it's right up there with "Collateral" and "Heat," and is the first truly great live-action studio film of the summer.

The film centers on the last year of Dillinger's life, starting with a daring sequence in which the young robber and some friends break fellow gang members out of prison. Dillinger, known for the fast and flashy way with which he robbed banks, quickly becomes a folk hero--he famously tells bank clients not to give him their wallets. "I'm here for the bank's money, not yours," he says (although I wonder if he ever thought about who the bank's money actually came from). He gives a female hostage his own coat and when he ties four to a tree to cover his tracks assures them "it will take you only about 10 minutes to worm your way free."

As Dillinger is capturing the public's attention, the head of the newly-formed FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is attempting to secure funding to increase the bureau's jurisdiction. With Chicago as the epicenter for organized crime, he promotes special agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to the head of his Windy City force. His main goal: to track down John Dillinger. Purvis, portrayed by Bale as a good and soft-spoken man who simply wants to stop crime the right way, soon discovers his squeaky-clean group of young G-Men are not skilled enough to take down Dillinger and his team. So he recruits some hardened cops from Texas and begins to wrestle with the implications of compromising his values to get results.

There's also the romance between Dillinger and coat check woman Billie Frechette (Cotillard). What might at first seem a superfluous addition to a cops-and-robbers story is actually the film's heartbeat and the closest we get to understanding Dillinger. The two's relationship is, on the surface, on of love. But looking a bit closer, it's based more deeply on needs. Frechette comes from a background where "nothing happened" and the opportunity to be around Dillinger gave her a whiff of excitement and the opportunity to be special. For Dillinger, who never let anyone down, it was his way of using his ill-gotten gains to help someone "better" themselves. There's no doubt that the two share an affection, possibly love. But the deeper truth is that the relationship allowed both of them a chance at some form of self-fulfillment.

That's a lot of information for one movie, which clocks in at 140 minutes but never feels overly-long. In fact, if there was one complaint I had about "Public Enemies," it was that it needed a bit more time, specifically at the beginning. Much is made of Dillinger's popularity with the public and it's hinted that he's seen as a Robin Hood during the Great Depression. But that just sort of happens...we never really see much of the Great Depression or see this ascent to popularity Dillinger and his gang face.

But then again, I wonder if the addition of such scenes would have given us the impression that Dillinger was a Depression-era Robin Hood. Mann steers away from the idea that Dillinger ever really felt he was doing good work--he was just a guy who knew the value of tweaking his public image. "It's important that the public likes me," he says at one point. "I hide out among them." I think the addition of any scenes that portrayed him as being exactly what the people thought would have misled the audience. Instead, Dillinger seems more amused by the popularity and more than willing to milk it...there's a fantastic scene where he's arrested and taken to Ohio and commands a press conference like a celebrity, even leaning on the shoulder of the warden like old chums. Still, the film does take a moment to find its footing in the opening scenes, although after about 30 minutes it rolls quite smoothly.

The film's look--Mann photographed it on digital instead of film--has also been cause for debate. The movie doesn't have the polished, soft look we've come to expect of period films. Instead, the visual camera captures the harshness of dark nights, the pitch blackness that is only interrupted by gunfire and gives the movie an immediacy that urges us to see the film as the events are happening, not as if they happened more than 70 years ago. I personally really like the look. Mann is one of the few directors pushing the edges of filming in digital and the cinematography in "Collateral" was some of the best photography I've seen in an action film. I love the fact that it gives the film more urgency and immediacy instead of holding the audience at arm's length and romanticizing the era. This is easily the most fascinatingly-photographed film I've seen all year.

We live in an age where Michael Bay is known as the action king, but that's a misnomer; he's the activity king--something's always happening in his movies, whether it's interesting or not. Mann is truly one of the best action directors around and those who need any confirmation are just invited to revisit the bank heist in "Heat." The reason you won't hear a ton about the action scenes in "Public Enemies" isn't because there aren't any--there are quite a few--but simply because they're so well done, which is simply what's expected of Mann. In a world of fast cuts and caffeinated editing, Mann is one of the few directors who truly understands the importance of geography and coherence in an action sequence. The siege on the Little Bohemia lodge, scene as a turning point in the FBI's war against Dillinger, is particularly fantastic as Mann cuts out any soundtrack and extraneous lighting, letting muzzle flashes and the rat-tat-tat of Tommy Guns fill the extended, 10 minute shootout.

But it's actually the scenes without any gunfire that are most intriguing. There's Hoover's insistence on escalating his war on crime, which is portrayed as a giant public relations effort. There's a simple shot of Army troops guarding Dillinger's prison. A fantastic sequence in a movie theater (before the incident at the Biograph) where Dillinger's face is broadcast on a news reel and the audience instructed to look to their left and right...the smirk on Depp's face at that point is perfection. And, near the end, a scene where Dillinger waltzes into the Chicago Police Department's Dillinger Task Force room and struts around like he owns the place, unnoticed by any of the cops--even when he asks the score for the Cubs game. It's a scene so brazen and bold that I immediately thought it was fiction...but come to find out, Dillinger did actually make that visit (although I doubt it was on the day of his death, as the film portrays it).

Depp, after years of playing eccentric characters in garish makeup, reminds us that he can also play real characters with dynamic skill. I don't know that any other actor would have been right for the role, incorporating a hint of sincerity, a mix of bemusement and a whole lot of self confidence. Depp never overdoes it but is not afraid to push Dillinger's self-confidence as far as it can go and still be realistic (the visit to the police department). The reason we may not learn much more about Dillinger the man is, quite possibly, because there wasn't much more to him. He was incarcerated at a young age and when he came out, having met his gang in prison, he simply wanted to live fast and for the moment. When he asks "what else is there to know" the answer may be "nothing," because there was nothing else, save for a commitment to do right by those closest to him. Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to this before Depp and while I think he could have pulled off Dillinger's confidence, I think it's the bemusement that he would have lacked...he's too sincere, while Depp adds a small dash of irony to the role that really works; Dillinger is very aware of how absurd his fame is...and he loves every minute of it.

I've noticed that in the past few months Bale's presence has been dialed down in the film's marketing. I'm guessing his name was a selling point due to the mega success of "The Dark Knight" (maybe it was scaled back after seeing his one-note work in "Terminator Salvation"). It was probably the right move, because Purvis is really a supporting character here, not another lead role. And I think that removing Bale from the spotlight and giving him a smaller, non-starring role is really a good move. He's a great actor but he's not a movie star. Here, he's soft-spoken and gives us just enough information to understand the conflict he's having with his integrity. Purvis may be out of his league, is what the film seems to be saying, and in the final moments at the Biograph, where Dillinger met his end, we get the sense that he was overrun by the more aggressive cops he recruited for the task (Purvis committed suicide a year after Dillinger's death). Bale's solid in the role, mostly for the fact that he never oversells it. It makes it more touching when he has a heroic moment involving Cotillard's character at the FBI headquarters late in the film.

Cotillard is fine, although her newly-acquired English seems to give her stumbles in the dialogue. And the entire cast is filled with fantastic character actors who bring the era to life. Billy Crudup so perfectly captures Hoover's radio-ready voice and mannerisms, and yet gives us a hint of the man's flaws, that he could be a dark horse contender for an Oscar.

And, of course, Mann must bring everything around to that fateful night at the Biograph theater, a sequence that is taut and suspenseful even though we know how it ends (Dillinger's death is the one thing everyone knows about his life). Depp brings something to Dillinger as he watches Clark Gable portray a gangster on death row that says that he knows how he's ultimately going to go out. And the staging of the shoot-out is handled with the skill Mann typically brings...when the first shot is fired, the event is seen as being a travesty, with the FBI eager to kill, not arrest, Dillinger. But then again, Dillinger was reaching for a gun. Mann doesn't oversell the scene, again letting the audience wrestle with what happened...although there is the slightest sense of judgment in watching Purvis saunter away from the crowd that gathers around the gangster's body.

I find myself fatigued with big budget action movies that are nothing more than loud noises, pretty CGI and vapid storytelling. It's refreshing to have a film that manages to be engaging, entertaining and intelligently done. This is the best live-action film so far this summer and one of the year's best films.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.