Public Enemies: Not all summer movies have to be junk.
8 July, 2009
Head over to the multiplex today and the prospects are noticeably grim: Three hours of robots hitting each other courtesy of Michael Bay, two hours of sentimentality porn involving a kid with cancer and Cameron Diaz, or an hour and a half of prehistoric animated animals farting, falling over, and chasing after acorns. Amidst the countless screenings of cringe-worthy franchise installments is a film that appears better suited for the mid-November Oscar push: Public Enemies, a John Dillinger biopic from director Michael Mann.
Like most of Mann’s oeuvre, Public Enemies is a seemingly commercial enterprise but with arthouse sensibilities. He shot the film entirely with high-definition digital cameras, resulting in what Mark Kermode described as “The Untouchables as remade by Lars von Trier.” It’s a jarring effect initially but it serves to put the viewer right in the middle of the action. Moments in the film even include a song by contemporary bluesman Otis Taylor. Gone is the distance created by period pieces; it’s as if the story took place a mere 10 years ago. And why not? The news is buzzing with reports of corporate thief Bernie Madoff’s imminent incarceration, so obviously there’s nothing dated about thieves.
Of course, Madoff isn’t quite as dapper as Johnny Depp who gives his best performance since Blow. For the first time in years, Depp’s skills as a physical actor aren’t used to flesh out a Tim Burton pastiche or a campy Disney pirate; his Dillinger is flesh and blood. That said, not even Depp at his finest is a match for Marion Cotillard, who transforms a generic girlfriend role into a force of nature. Although she’s absent for much of the film, she steals literally every scene she appears in, and is currently a shoo-in for her second consecutive Oscar as a result. Largely ignored in the press thus far is Stephen Graham who electrifies the screen as Babyface Nelson. Graham previously blew audiences away as a violent skinhead in Shane Meadows’ This is England, and if he keeps this up, he will eventually become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after character actors.
And then there’s Christian Bale, a once extraordinary new talent who has lately been letting the side down with a string of one-note performances as boring alpha males. Here, he is marginally better but sadly isn’t strong enough to maintain the conflict established between himself and Mr. Depp. However, it’s not entirely Mr. Bale’s fault. The central thesis that runs through many of Mann’s films is that cops and criminals are two sides of the same coin. This concept is employed most notably in Heat, the epic crime saga in which Al Pacino’s cop and Robert De Niro’s crook were exactly the same person but with different directions in life. Public Enemies attempts to draw the same conclusion but is incapable of doing so thanks entirely to Purvis’ characterization. While Dillinger is nothing if not a cowboy who gets off on breaking the law, Purvis is nothing more than a footsoldier following orders. When the two men finally meet halfway through in a prison cell, the screen should be exploding with tension just as it did when De Niro and Pacino shared a scene together for the very first time. Instead, it’s merely lukewarm.
Because it fails to prove the Michael Mann premise and has little else to say about Dillinger or the FBI, Public Enemies falls short of the director’s best work. But despite its 140-minute running time, the story never slacks and the action sequences are the most exhilarating you’re likely to see all year, and that includes Star Trek. Perfection is an impossible thing for any artwork to achieve, and despite the picture’s shortcomings, I’ll take a flawed Michael Mann film over a good – and I use the word advisedly – Michael Bay film any day.