Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: Public Enemies

About thirty minutes into Michael Mann's first film since 2006's Miami Vice, John Dillinger tells his stickup partner, Red Hamilton, "We're having too good a time today to worry about tomorrow." Dillinger lived exclusively in the present; he had no grand ambitions or schemes beyond his next robbery, and he did not dwell upon dark unspoken moments of his past. He was simply a charming guy with a notorious talent for robbing banks. In Public Enemies, director Michael Mann does not take any historical liberties with Dillinger. He is precisely as uncomplicated as he was in real life.

I begin with this important clarification because a number of negative reactions to the film have all revolved around the same gripe: this film has no emotional depth. Johnny Depp's John Dillinger oozes charisma and confidence, but lacks a hole in his heart or a chip on his shoulder in which the audience can take a firm foothold and invest themselves. His pursuer, Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis, is similarly uncomplicated but with the added disinterest of a wooden personality.

To a degree, these complaints are accurate. Christian Bale, somehow, is still stuck in Batman mode, though this time with an authentic Old-Timey accent. Billy Crudup gained about thirty pounds of neck flesh to portray J. Edgar Hoover, and although the added weight does not prohibit him from matching Bale's Depression-era speech patterns, Crudup is all but unnecessary. Marion Cotillard performs admirably as Dillinger's girlfriend Billie Frechette, although, like so many other characters, there is simply nothing wrong with her. Oh, you rob banks? That's cool. Yes, I'll sleep with you. The real star, obviously, is Johnny Depp, who radiates cool in every scene. Ever since he transcended mere fame as Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp has not so much acted as he has glided. The real challenge at this point would be to cast him as someone with severe Social Anxiety Disorder.

In a departure from Mann's previous films, Public Enemies is thematically extremely simple. John Dillinger robs banks for a living; along the way, he acquires a girlfriend; various men attempt to thwart him. As Al Pacino said in Mann's Heat: "Cut and dry. That is it."

If anything can claim to steal the screen from Depp, it is Dante Spinotti's cinematography. Mann has always been at the cutting edge of camera work, and this film is no different. From lingering close-ups of beautiful people to gun battles shrouded in the dark of night, Public Enemies might just be the best-looking film you'll see this year. The production also had 32 crewmembers dedicated to sound, and you can definitely hear the difference. I would be surprised if Public Enemies didn't receive a handful of technical Oscar nominations.

The final word is this: If you demand pathos in your film experience, you won't get much out of Public Enemies. It will probably leave you feeling hollow and uninspired. But if you go to the movies to be entertained, to marvel at the technical wizardry of one of the finest filmmakers of all time, you will love this film.


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