Friday, July 03, 2009

Movie Review: "Public Enemies"

Lyrical gangsta.

Legendary 1930s bank robber John Dillinger the "Gentleman Bandit" holds up movie theaters as "Public Enemies" opens this week. I'd really been looking forward to this, and I was hoping that the film wouldn't rob me of two hours of my life and leave me disgusted and disappointed. It didn't. It's a solid, competent film that is beautifully shot and produced, front-loaded with immense acting talent, and well-timed to bring some class and polish to a summer season thus far greatly littered with some crashing disappointments.

Having said that, though, director Michael Mann's film has its fair share of problems. It is a good film but not a great one, when it had all the makings of being a truly great one. Unrealized potential is a very special kind of failure. Here, it left me with a restless sense of unfulfilment; it seemed as if the film were on a leash for 2 hours and never quite let go to run passionately riot as it should, and Mann never quite manages to get under Dillinger's and Purvis's skin to figure out what really, viscerally made them tick as human beings. In the end, there's more crime than drama in this crime drama -- and that in itself is a cinematic crime.


Production Value:
There is a visual lyricism in this film that is undeniable. It's a splendidly gorgeous film to see, and the attention to detail is remarkable. The movie manages to evoke and create an entire vanished world -- and, what's more difficult still -- to sustain that. Oh, and I absolutely love the vintage cars.

Action Sequences:
From jailbreaks to bank robberies to shootouts, who doesn't love a beautifully filmed action scene?

Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette
OK, I confess: part of me was hoping Cotillard's performance would be bad just so I could entitle this review "Moll Flounders, with apologies to Daniel Defoe." But Cotillard is very good indeed and she has no missteps at all (and I still got to use that bad literary pun, so all is well!). In fact, Cotillard's performance is one of the highlights of the film. Straight from her Oscar-winning turn in "La Vie en Rose," she brings a sense of fragile humanity to her role as Dillinger's lover, and she elevates the part of "gangster's moll"from mere obligatory guys' eye candy to a picture of desperate desire both for love and for a better life. She becomes a woman worth risking capture for. Her final scene is fantastic.

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger:
This film hinges entirely on Depp's performance. I knew this going into the theater. What I hadn't anticipated was that Depp single-handedly makes this movie worth watching -- and single-handedly saves it from its own flaws.

Depp has made an entire storied career from playing quirky, eccentric characters, and the role that finally catapulted him into superstardom (Captain Jack Sparrow) fit right into the pattern. Here he tackles the role of Dillinger with gusto, though I think the character's underwritten and underdeveloped -- the writers could have done more with him, so Depp in turn could do more with him. As things are, you get occasional flashes of brilliance -- and these actually become frustrating, because I kept wanting more. But Depp, even if constrained by the script, manages to work his own magic anyway with his sheer personal magnetism. His Dillinger is the single best thing about this movie, and he somehow conveys a world of character without having to say anything in several scenes. The scene in which he asks, "What's the score?" is excellent.

A note: Depp just keeps growing better-looking as the years go by. It's not fair, is it? He's come a long way since "21 Jump Street," and in this film, he wears his role as arrestingly as he wears his tailored outfits. The camera loves him, as it should, and Depp's charisma is as close as we ever really get to Mann's exploration of why and how Dillinger was such a sensation in his time.

Looks aside, the talent is obvious. When he is not on screen, his absence is acutely felt; the other actors (including Bale) simply cannot fill the void.

Unabashed "eye candy" photo for La Parisienne and Thalia:
robbing banks and stealing hearts . . . plus gorgeous vintage cars

The Scene Stealer Award:
Stephen Lang as lawman Charles Winstead turns in a few memorable moments. Unfortunately, they come far too late in the movie, and the best of them would have been much more compelling if the Winstead character had been better developed previously in the film.


Lost Opportunities:
Mann throws in just enough hints to drive you mad with the thought that he had an inkling of what was possible but never fulfilled it -- that he walked up to the door but never stepped through. Two examples: Mann glances at (but, infuriatingly, never really examines) the nature and meaning of Dillinger's popularity -- Dillinger as folk hero, Dillinger as celebrity. This movie could have done something brilliant with these ideas, just as it should have done more to get under Dillinger's slick surface. That we ever get the sense of depth to Dillinger is basically due to the adept Depp.

Pacing (and Plodding):
This movie drags in places -- too many places. The script has problems of construction; the result is that it often seems episodic, hopping disjointedly from one setpiece to another. A sense of smooth, sustained development is missing, so there's little sense of building to a climax. The robberies and shootouts and jailbreaks are all very well done, but they have to serve a greater purpose of narrative -- and here Mann drops the ball. You never get a real sense of building urgency or the sense that the action has much effect on the characters involved (except for several redeeming scenes of Depp). The ending seems abrupt and unsatisfying.

The pacing error is compounded by the failure to develop supporting characters. There are too many minor figures, and they come and go so quickly that you never really figure out who they are or why they matter before they vanish. No sooner could I realize, "Hey, that's Giovanni Ribisi!" than he's gone as if he had never existed, and I never figured out what difference his appearance actually made. What a waste of Mr. Ribisi and every other actor who shared his plight in this film.

OK, this paragraph is spoiler-ish. This movie has a lot of deaths, predictably. But without character development, the deaths seem hollow and meaningless. On several occasions, both lawman Purvis and outlaw Dillinger are present when their companions die. But the emotional power is missing because we don't really have any feeling for the dying men, and their deaths ultimately don't drive the story either in terms of character development of their surviving friends or in terms of narrative action. OK, one exception: the opening sequence. (Why did I keep thinking -- obsessively -- about Sean Connery?) On other occasions, shootout deaths seem to matter little even when lawman Purvis is doing the shooting -- you'd think these scenes would do something to give Purvis a personality, but they don't seem to register even on Purvis, much less the audience.

My complaint about character development finds its best (or worst) example in . . .

Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis:
Purvis is the man tasked by J. Edgar Hoover (a rather cartoonishly rendered Billy Crudup) with apprehending Dillinger. OK, if Dillinger is a charismatic scoundrel who's captured the public's imagination and proceeded to elude all attempts at capture, then we ought to have Purvis as a nemesis worth having, right? Someone tough, smart, and as relentless and interesting in the pursuit as Dillinger is in the chase, right? RIGHT?? Ummmm . . . NO.

How the answer could possibly be "no" when (a) the character needs it and (b) the character is played by none other than CHRISTIAN BALE is one of the great sad mysteries of this movie. A little side note here:


I am on the record as being a great fan of Christian Bale, whose undeniable talent has always brought both heat and light to the movie screen from "Empire of the Sun" to "American Psycho" to the Batman movies. Given that, I'm completely baffled at his appearances in this summer season. When I had first heard that Bale would star in both "Terminator Salvation"and "Public Enemies," I thought Summer 2009 would be the Summer of Bale just as Summer 2008 was the radiant, unforgettable Summer of Downey ("Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder"). Bale was supposed to take the cinema by storm; goodness knows we were all ready and eager for it after last summer's "The Dark Knight."

So what the heck happened? Bale was utterly flat, unsympathetic, and uncharismatic in "Terminator Salvation,"and in "Public Enemies," he is likewise so grim-faced and stoic that he seems a caricature of the character. There was not a single flicker of individuality or personality in Bale's Purvis. He was unable to capture the attention, much less the imagination, of the audience, and I felt no investment at all in his quest to capture Dillinger. The climax of the film became an anti-climax.

Dear Christian Bale's Charisma,

I hope you're enjoying your vacation, wherever it is that you've gone. You've worked very hard and done very well over the years, and I'm sure you deserve your holiday. BUT, vacation is over, and it's time to pack up the beach chairs, finish your mai tai, and come back to work. Christian Bale is doing the best he can, but he needs you back, and so do I -- and the rest of the movie fans. Please come back soon!

Mad Minerva


Go watch Brian De Palma's splendid 1987 film "The Untouchables." Now that's a 1930s gangster film that knows how to develop both plot and the characters, big and small, and bring a real sense of urgency, drama, and action. In recent years I've made fun of Kevin Costner a lot (you can't possibly think I'd let him get away unscathed from the shipwreck of a flick known as "Waterworld"), but his turn as Eliot Ness in "The Untouchables" is flawless down to his final line, and he is everything that Christian Bale's Purvis could/should have been but wasn't. The supporting cast of that movie actually emerged as individual characters, and the deaths along the way actually mattered both in terms of character development and the plot. Sean Connery's turn rightfully won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Finally, De Palma's movie gave you a sense of the dangerous cat-and-mouse game between Ness and his nemesis Al Capone (the great Robert de Niro, commanding the screen); the taut, sustained drama and the action it brings is real and visceral.


"Public Enemies" is a flawed but worthwhile and stylish, intelligent crime drama that is elevated (and indeed redeemed) by Depp's performance. Go see it. In the places that it is less than it could be, it's still passable and watchable; in the places that it is good, it is brilliant.

Mad Minerva gives this film a grade of B-. (I suppose it really is a solid B, but I'm so disappointed by Bale's second strikeout in a single season that I'm feeling really vicious. Besides, a taut crime drama should not PLOD as often as this one did.)

RottenTomatoes gives "Public Enemies" a "fresh" rating of 63%.

The official website is here.

"Public Enemies" runs for 140 minutes and is rated R for violence and a little language (but mostly violence with tommy guns and rifles in bank robberies and shootouts).


lp said...

I am certain that Depp has a portrait in his attic.

Mad Minerva said...

Cheri, it would make sense, wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

Please look up concise in the dictionary. While you're at it, curt, laconic, pithy, to the point. My eyeballs hurt. Too many collections of letters. Under 160 characters please.