Posts Tagged ‘public enemies’

Public Enemies: A Review

July 16, 2009

Michael Mann seems to be at odds with what a movie is supposed to do. Throughout his filmography, one can find numerous instances of choosing the least entertaining aspect of a subject as his main focus and shoving it at the viewer saying, "This is real fucking life! Deal with it." It happened in Ali, it happened Miami Vice, and it happens rather egregiously in Public Enemies. I'm the last person to begrudge anyone of attempting to throw some realism into their films, but there is real, and then there is dull. And Public Enemies is real dull. 

I went into Public Enemies thinking myself a pretty hardcore Mann apologist, with an unabashed love of Miami Vice and a great enthusiasm for The Insider, which I would easily slot as a Great Film. But walking out, all I could think about was all of the criticisms that people have leveled against those films, and how they perfectly apply to Public Enemies. Michael Mann loves to tell stories about professionals placed in unprofessional circumstances and see how they handle it. Johnny Depp's Dillinger is presented as a professional of sorts, but his plight isn't approached in a way to make me care. He's slick, but he's not that slick. That about sums Dillinger up, and that's too bad. Perhaps after hamming it up for three years at Jack Sparrow, Depp wanted to just chill. The entire film is about the downfall of this man, the steps towards his death, and he plays it pretty obliviously. Some scenes appear to exist without cognizant knowledge of their predecessors, so Dillinger is cautious one moment, flippant the next, like he woke up the next morning and thought it was all a bad dream. 
Public Enemies also lacks a sense of place. I know it takes place during the Depression, but besides some brief lip service, there isn't any indication of what type of place America is at the time, and more importantly, what Dillinger means to the people. The film makes repeated mentions to Dillinger's folk hero status, but basically that's it. Someone says he's a folk hero, but I never got a sense of what type of notorious celebrity John Dillinger was. This just adds to an overwhelming case of "Who cares?" Dillinger is an inspiration to people we never meet in an era not properly portrayed. Roger Ebert, in a review much kinder than this one, makes mention to some of Michael Mann's detail choices. 

Mann redressed Lincoln Avenue on either side of the Biograph Theater, and laid streetcar tracks; I live a few blocks away, and walked over to marvel at the detail. I saw more than you will; unlike some directors, he doesn't indulge in beauty shots to show off the art direction. It's just there.

I don't know if I needed beauty shots, but perhaps a few more details to explain and illustrate this era. Which leads me to this films biggest problem; it looks and sounds like shit. Michael Mann is big proponent of filming with digital cameras, and up to this film, I was a big fan. His use of digital on Miami Vice and Collateral is sharp and clear, and the sound work on both is top notch. Not the case with Public Enemies. Visually, the film often looks amateurish, with visible makeup on the actors and Depp's knuckle tattoo's plainly visible in many scenes. But also the action takes a hit, with sequences deflated because of an apparent defiant need to "show it like it happened" that tends to only deflate thrills, which movies I've heard are supposed to have. The sound is atrocious, with dialog lost and garbled amongst random music stabs that sound like someone is still choosing music cues. Or sometimes you just can't understand what people are saying. I thought it might have been just me with these sound issues, but Justin experienced the same thing when he saw it. 

Speaking of Mann's decision to deflate thrills, I chalked this up to a slavish devotion to fact which, while it's tough to enjoy, I can respect. Hey, if that's how it went down, that's how it went down. But reading up afterward, I found that much of the film is fabricated and the timeline rearranged, which throws that entire rational out the window. By all accounts, the scripts historical changes were done for cinematic reasons, but they don't work anyway. If anything, they reveal the Dillinger story to in fact be even less exciting than presented, which questions why it was even made to begin with. 
The few bright spots are when the film decides to have a little fun; a scene where Dillinger jokes and bates the press, a tense escape for a military guarded jail, or any scene with Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup's performance is a fine one, evoking not just a person but also a sense of the time period that person existed in, with his posture and way of talking. Johnny Depp could be just about anybody when he plays Dillinger, while Christian Bale is essentially a non-entity, with a performance exactly 180 degrees from his overheated John Conner performance in Terminator: Salvation. Not a good look. Marion Cotillard can't maintain an American accent, which is too bad since her character is half Native American. Oh well, she looks nice I guess. 
Michael Mann is capable of making entertaining films, but with Public Enemies he indulges in all his worst tendencies, leaving us with a rather bland film that delivers some faint traces of people I can only assume were much deeper. 

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