Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

Warning: I actually liked this movie. So this review is not so much with the funny.

Depp as Dillinger, battle worn, but $8,000 richer.

Mr. Johnny knows his guns and who to trust. An eternal optimist, nothing is impossible for him – not even a jail break using nothing but a cleverly disguised wooden spoon as a weapon. He likes fast cars and beautiful women and is not afraid to look a man in the eyes at the moment of death. “We’re having too good a time today not thinking about tomorrow.” This is Michael Mann’s John Dillinger.

Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp as the infamous Chicago gangster, John Dillinger, is an oddly intimate film that captures a critical point in America’s war on crime. By playing up the role of Dillinger’s pursuer, FBI Special Agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and deemphasizing the devious nature of the real Dillinger, Mann is able to blur the line between good and evil. Despite being set in 1933, the use of digital video and contemporary music creates an odd pairing that may distract some, but amuse others. On the surface Public Enemies is a romanticized tale of a cop killer and thief, but layered performances by Depp, Bale and Marion Cotillard, combined with a casual shooting style yet rich mise-en-scène make this bold period piece stand apart from other gangster flicks.

Based on a book by Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies tells the true story, with some artistic license taken, of John Dillinger and his colorful band of miscreants as he claimed the spot light as America’s very first Public Enemy Number One from 1933 until his demise in 1934. As the focus of J. Edgar Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) public campaign against crime, helmed by Melvin Purvis (Bale), Dillinger reaches celebrity status as a stand up criminal who has no trouble stealing money from the banks that failed the Depression stricken American people, but never from its patrons. The FBI’s power expands as Dillinger’s notoriety becomes more of a hindrance as he continues to torment his pursuers on a chase through the Midwest. The game is changing and though Dillinger manages to stay one step ahead of the law, the law begins to creep closer and closer to the line that separates cop and criminal, eventually bringing in what is left of the Old West’s hired guns to close the case. Meanwhile, the world of crime is evolving from Dillinger’s bread and butter, bank robbery, into more sophisticated crime syndicate operations that care little for the adoration of the common man as Dillinger does.

Bale as good guy, Melvin Purvis.

Depp and Bale, both understated and subtle at times, show their usual uncompromising commitment to their roles. Though Dillinger and Purvis are rarely in the same room, a delicate tension is created, and it’s clear that Dillinger has gotten deep under Purvis’ skin. Both characters struggle internally as they play out their parts, one the gentleman gangster, one the hot shot law man with everything to prove. Depp and Bale are compelling adversaries.

Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s half French, half Native American girlfriend, who can only afford a $3 dress when she meets him, is amazing. This no surprise for those who witnessed her Academy Award® winning role as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La vie en rose. She manages to portray the coat check girl swept off her feet by the dashing and wealthy gangster with depth and grace. Her performance in the interrogation room later in the film conveys a strength and tenacity rarely seen in supporting female roles due to equal parts Cotillard and excellent writing by Mann, Robert Bennett and Ann Biderman.

Cotillard is stunning.

Lili Taylor in a small role as Sheriff Lillian Holley is a pleasant surprise. Jason Clarke as Dillinger’s right hand man, John “Red” Hamilton is a stand out amongst the other gang members who include Stephen Dorff and Lord of the Rings’ John Wenham.

The digital look of Public Enemies has been the topic of much debate online, but as one who shared in the skepticism, I am glad to say that it simply works. If Public Enemies were to have been given the standard grand film format to achieve a more traditionally cinematic look, it would have been a different movie, a less interesting one too. The spaces in Public Enemies feel real, as though shot with existing lighting, as though people were mingling in a night club long before the camera entered the room. The look of this film is gorgeous without being precious or overly nostalgic.

Depp’s Dillinger is likable even though his motivations are a bit soft for a character based on a cop killer. This Dillinger is more driven by love and at times we see him value life over wealth. Public Enemies manages to balance shoot ‘em up excitement with quiet looks into engaging characters. One of the final scenes caps Dillinger’s character perfectly. As he sits in a darkened theater, watching Clark Gable as a racketeer in Manhattan Melodrama, a knowing smile creeps across his face. In these final quiet moments of the film, Dillinger simultaneously admires and identifies with Gable’s character and celebrity unaware of the fate that awaits him outside the theater doors.


Public Enemies
Opens today
140 min
Dir.: Michael Mann
Writ.: Mann, Robert Bennett and Anne Biderman
Prod.: a bunch of nice folks including Mann and De Niro.
Kick-ass Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Rated: R for violence and language. A little bloody, but never gory, kids would just find the whole thing boring and confusing. Perhaps you might offer to rent them 1976's Bugsy Malone instead, Scott Baio at his best.