Public Enemies

Public Enemies

Film review by: Witney Seibold

Depp as Dillinger

Michael Mann likes shooting on low-fi digital camcorders, giving his cold-blue crime flicks a stolid and immediate feeling. In “Collateral,” “The Insider,” and even his underrated film “Miami Vice,” he has managed to capture a gritty, intense look to his washed-out city streets and heartless, utilitarian crimefighters/criminals. The film stock itself seems to grow out of the concrete-encrusted artificiality of modern urban areas.

Mann uses this same approach when shooting his latest film “Public Enemies” about John Dillinger, and the most recognizable faces on the Depression-era crime scene. Sadly, the usual approach doesn’t work too well. The world of John Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, Pretty-Boy Floyd, is a world reeking of romance and glamour. These were well-dressed gentleman criminals, who used charm just as effectively as they used tommy guns. I understand that Mann was trying to use his usual gritty techniques to diffuse some of the glitz that has accumulated around the Dillinger myth, but, dammit, Dillinger’s life was a bit glitzy, and the story requires some of that romance to work properly. In taking out the romance, Mann has effectively flattened out the drama. He makes the events of the film feel swift and immediate and intense, but, in the process, has made no event seem any more or less important than any other event. As a taching primer, “Public Enemies” may do. As a crime film, it leaves something to be desired.

In the plus column, though, we are dealing with a first-rate cast. Dillinger is played by Johnny Depp. Depp plays the part with a fierce resoluteness, and an efficient brutality we don’t usually see from him. When he sets his eyes on a young woman (and I guess every gangster must have a moll), he makes sure she becomes his goil in the most straightforward fashion imaginable. He essentially grabs her by the arm and says “You’re my true love, now, see?” And, coming from Depp, we believe it. The moll is played by Marion Cotillard, who is a good enough actress to react in a believable way to Dillinger’s no-nonsense charms.

On the other side of the law, we have Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a crackerjack cop who has been enlisted by a young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to head-up the nascent Federal Crime Bureau. I loved all the scenes with the cops, as we got to experience, at once, both the intense intelligence coming from the seasoned crimefighters, and their baffled inexperience in dealing with criminals as powerful and as crafty as Dillinger. Bale underplays his part, making sure we see the obsession of Purvis, and not necessarily the ego. Crudup is spellbinding as Hoover, and mercifully does not camp up the part at all.

Bale and Crudup as Purvis and Hoover

So, despite being a largely flat drama, “Public Enemies” is a fascinating slice of history, a utilitarian view of the operation of crime syndicates in 1930s Chicago, and is populated with several droolingly attractive men in really, really nice suits. Even the bohunkular buttsteak Channing Tatum has a cameo. Mann has done better than this, and will do better in the future, but “Public Enemies” is certainly no waste.

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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