Movie Review: Mann Alive! ‘Public Enemies’ Is An Old-School Epic With New Tricks

29 Jun

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Public Enemies (2009) R. 140  min. Directed by: Michael Mann. Written by: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, & Ann Biderman. Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup.Cinematography:Dante Spinotti. Original music by: Elliot Goldenthal.

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Now this is how you do summer movie escapism. One of our best and brightest movie stars paired with one of the most consistently interesting directors available in the larger than life story of  America’s canniest career criminal, John Dillinger. For all of those shaking under the tromping robotic boots of Bay’s blustering summer monstrosity, take heart, that other Mike has come to town and he’s brought Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and  Christian Bale along for a thrilling ride that recreates Depression era cop and robber games with all the precision of a master storyteller.

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies isn’t the first time a gifted stylist has lent his considerable talents to telling the story of devil-may-care outlaws vs. straight-shooting, never-surrender law officers; Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables relayed an earlier story with an emphasis on near mythic characters and action scenes that felt as though they belonged encased in the panels of a comic book.  John Milius’ grittier Dillinger cast Warren Oates in the same role Depp has here and the result was a seedy but intense crime drama with considerable bite. Mann, who seemingly has a continuing itch to scratch when it comes to obsessive, hard-edged enforcers (Manhunter) and adrenaline-seeking criminal enclaves(Heat), goes a different route with Public Enemies.

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When my wife and I saw the film on Thursday night, we were surprised by how much of its running time  is given over to painting a detailed and intensely accurate portrait of the time period and developing the relationship between Depp’s John Dillinger and Marion Cotillard’s shy and sensitive Billie Frechette. Behind all of this, Bale’s ferocious, steadfast lawman, Melvin Purvis, pursues Johnny and his gang like lightning follows thunder. Dozens of recognizable faces are strewn throughout the picture, some more obvious than others. When the credits rolled, I was surprised to see that Stephen Dorff, Emile deRaven, and others had been in the film and I had completely failed to identify them. Even Billy Crudup (thankfully not naked and blue this time) disappears into the role of J. Edgar Hoover, adopting every facial tick and idiosyncracy to the point where we aren’t looking at the actor anymore, but at a reasonable facsimile of the historical figure.

The infamous gang that followed Dillinger are all here;  Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Alvin Karpis, Harry Pierpont and Walter Dietrich, each making it to the screen with all of their individual trademarks intact but dialed down. This is a relatively realistic portrayal of the story, and Mann keeps the spotlight off of the supporting players and almost completely on Depp, who could have carried the whole movie but doesn’t need to. Every role, no matter how small, has been thoughtfully considered and cast to the benefit of the final product.

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The trailers for Public Enemies would lead you to believe that Bale and Depp play off each other here like Crow and Washington in American Gangster, or share similar screentime like DeNiro and Pacino in Heat. Neither is the case. This is Depp’s film all the way, and the movie is centered and fixed on Dillinger as the  dramatic center; Purvis is the closest thing the film gets to a moral one, but his role is significantly smaller and it lacks the sort of defining characteristics that would give the audience permission to relate to Purvis. He remains always a relentless but disciplined warrior, hedged in and leashed by the self-appointed head of the G-Men, J. Edgar Hoover, displayed here the same way history itself portrays him; opportunistic, effeminate and smiling on the outside while secretly craving the destruction and neutralization of his enemies. In a bid to hold on to his power, he ramps up the war on organized crime with Dillinger in the crosshairs of his ambition.

 What sets this film apart from the usual run of gangster films is the very thing that also makes it a unique and exhilirating entertainment; Mann’s compelling visual sensibilities and his almost obsessive exploration of the cultural zeitgeist that resulted in men like Dillinger rising to the level of celebrity. From the very first frame of the film, where thecamera forces the viewer into the crunching lockstep of a chain gain marching across a prison yard, Mann uses the digital video to create a crime picture the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

There are the usual downfalls of the digital format; occasionally waxy skin tones or odd, unconvicing movements, but ultimately it is an asset; allowing the meticulously created world of the Depression Era 30s to become an open window through which we can almost reach out our hands and touch things. The camera moves everywhere without being erratic, zooms in here, sidesteps there, and tracks across compositions so perfectly concieved that they could have been landscapes by Andrew Wyeth. It’s an amazing marriage of aesthetic approaches and it results in a film, like last year’s The Dark Knight, that introduces us to a world so fully formed that we don’t need the plot to hold our hand through it. When there are detours, Mann leads us back to the road by way of some compelling shortcuts.

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Two scenes standout in my mind and as being almost perfect in their construction and execution. One of them involves Dillinger, in disguise, walking right into the police station where Purvis has been running his manhunt. In near silence we watch him navigate his way through the building and into a office marked with his name. Inside he takes inventory of the pictures on the wall featuring his fallen comrades and arrested lover; in the end he can’t resist walking over to the oblivious men watching a sports game and asking them the score.

The second is a virtuoso sequence near the film’s end where Depp sits in the cool of a movie theater watching Clark Gable up on screen in  Manhattan Melodrama  while Purvis and company surround the place from the outside. The film, which was the actual one playing when Dillinger was at the Biograph in ’34, echoes this movie’s internal theme; in it Gable plays ‘Blackie’ a cheerful and charismatic murdering criminal who has the audience’s affection while William Powell plays the less easy to like policeman charged with bringing him down. Mann does the exact same thing with Public Enemies, allowing us to identify with Dillinger’s passion, ambition and fidelity to his men while wincing at Bale’s focused trajectory that spins him ever onward towards violent confrontation. In this sequence, that confrontation is all but inevitable and its an interesting choice that Mann lets entire scenes of Manhattan Melodrama play uninterrupted on the screen, using its story to fill in the unspoken holes in this one. This is clever and effective filmmaking that never becomes precious.

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 The acting is uniformly terrific across the board, but anyone worrying about the top three big performances need not frett. Johnny Depp is in full control of his charm, wit and brooding stare; I feel like it’s been ages since he has played someone who isn’t a freakish caricature, and he delivers what could have been an over the top performance in a very subdued but calculated way that doesn’t feel like either while we are watching it. Mann’s making subtle little insinuations about the way in which enterprising and unscrupolous men on both sides of the law exploited a nation going through a dark and troublesome time. Depp makes us like Dillinger without sympathizing or celebrating with him.

Conversely, Christian Bale as Purvis is a hard man to like, but we admire his adherence to a code and the way he is patiently determined, allowing Dillinger to run circles around him until the moment is right. When Hoover has him make useless speeches to a crowd of reporters, we see Purvis saying one thing while quietly seething inside. Mann understands that despite the desire of Hollywood to make Bale a leading man, the actor’s strength is as a character actor in supporting roles where he can expand and explore characters that would be less interesting without him. The chase for Dillinger would not work with a less intense figure in the shoes of Melvin Purvis. Bale never overplays this, there are instances where he is calm and gentle–interrupting an over-the-line interrogation of a young woman and carrying her to the bathroom when she finds she cannot walk there herself–and then others where he might as well be playing The Terminator. Both work, and when Purvis finally breaks from his rigid self-control and prematurely launches a raid on a safehouse in the woods, the resulting firefight is extraordinary.

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In the middle of this struggle, is Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechete, a lovely, shy young singer, half-french, half Native-American who brightens up instantly when Depp’s Dillinger showers her with attention and affection. Cotillard was brilliant in La Vie En Rose as Edith Piaf, and she is excellent here too. She fits in so perfectly with the look and sensibility of the time period, and her acting chops ensure that she can hold her own in every scene with Depp, not only matching him but urging him onto greater heights as an actor.

The action scenes in Public Enemies aren’t plentiful but they are intense, and the aforementioned shootout is one of the best gangster-style gunfights I have ever seen. The sequence has a thrilling sense of geography and it takes place in the dead of night, so we can watch the Dillinger gang run through the forest pursued by Bale’s advancing G-men. When Purvis hangs out of the passenger side of a police car, spraying orange burts of tommy-gun fire at a fleeing Baby Face Nelson, it was clear that Mann was once more firing on all of his creative cylinders.

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If you are looking for a summer film that hearkens back to the old-fashioned epics of a now evaporated Hollywood or a crime thriller that embraces the hi-tech and low-tech to serve up a satisfying entertainment, Public Enemies should go to the top your Most Wanted list. 

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4 Responses to “Movie Review: Mann Alive! ‘Public Enemies’ Is An Old-School Epic With New Tricks”

  1. fandangogroovers June 29, 2009 at 12:16 pm #

    Great review I have been looking forward to this film for ages. Now I want to see it even more. It opens here at the weekend but I might be able to catch a preview on Wednesday.

  2. Digital Camera Guide June 29, 2009 at 9:07 pm #

    Great movie review here, keep it up!

  3. Xiphos June 29, 2009 at 9:57 pm #

    Public Enemies has the the Thompson M1921 on full display. I don’t need any other info, I’m sold.

  4. Jeff Cole June 29, 2009 at 10:38 pm #

    Wow, high marks. I’m interested.

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