A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Gangsters, G-Men and Girls..PUBLIC ENEMIES

In action on July 25, 2009 at 7:44 pm

It’s hard to encapsulate what it is about Michael Mann’s movies that are so rewarding, and so manly…Other than just accepting that his movies are about “manly men”. The movie HEAT is on my list of favorite movies, and it seems that Mann is at his best when working from his own material. I just recently watched LAST OF THE MOHICANS – for the first time, I know – and I know I need to revisit THE INSIDER (which I remember being a fantastic movie), but now with PUBLIC ENEMIES, I kind of would like to see Mann working with his own characters again. HEAT, COLLATERAL  – which was written by Stuart Beattie, but is still an original screenplay – all have ties only to the genre that they work to subvert and yet legitimize. Now, that’s not to say that PUBLIC ENEMIES isn’t a great movie, it is. Or that it fails in concept or execution, it doesn’t. But, the problem sort of seems like these are only finely tuned cyphers of true Michael Mann-like characters.

The story of PUBLIC ENEMIES, is that of John Dillinger, and opens with him breaking out of a prison with a number of other men. They try to do it quietly, but one of the guys – seemingly as his character is portrayed, it was “Baby Face” Nelson, but I’m not quite sure – goes overboard in stripping a guard and starts beating him, which then leads to a slaughter and a large gun fight between the guards in the tower and  the escapees on their way to their getaway car.

They get to a safe house, where they immediately seem to get new clothes, new cars and head out for a bank robbery. The staging of the number of hold-ups we see in the movie are wonderful, and detailed and each time we see how these guys work. They’re methodical, they don’t waste time – and wonderfully, there’s not even one robbery where they take a huge risk, like in other certain bank robbery movies (I’m looking at you POINT BREAK). But, the skill these men have is very much in line with Neil McCauley’s crew in HEAT. With Nelson, probably being a stand-in for Waingro; but other than that, they’re professional.

Then one night, while out with his partners, Dillinger sees a girl dancing with another guy; Billie, is the girl, a coat-check girl to be precise, and seemingly it’s love at first sight on Dillinger’s part, as he approaches her and the leave to wander the night together. One of the most attractive things about women in Mann’s movies are how they so easy fall for the men – who, usually whether they’re the good guy or the bad, aren’t good for the women – but, don’t just blindly accept them. It’s sort of like if TWILIGHT were to try and handle relationships, realistically; it could be something like this (although, less swooning as well). But, the women – and in this case, in particular – are strong and not above getting their own licks in too, even if it isn’t using their fists.

The rest of the movie really comes at us from three fronts. There’s the John Dillinger as criminal; plotting his scores and evading – yet standing right in front of – the authorities that are trying to capture him. Mostly, in the guise of Melvin Purvis. There’s a sort of interesting, yet shallow sub-plot surrounding J. Edgar Hoover’s trying to establish the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and in one fantastic scene – that I wouldn’t mind having a whole movie about – shows Hoover in a committee meeting asking for more money and the head of the committee questioning whether Hoover is even qualified to be in charge of such an organization. Finally, there’s the love story. It’s peppered throughout the movie, and quite a number of plot points figure into trying to bring the two lovers together.

The sections with the robberies, as I’ve already mentioned are wonderfully choreographed, and there’s total believability in how these men pulled off these crimes. There’s also two ways to identify the men that Dillinger works with; it’s either through the recognizable names (again, “Baby Face” Nelson) or recognizable actors (Stephen Dorff, Jason Clarke). But, other than Dillinger, we don’t get to know too many of these guys. Which is a pro and a con. I feel kind of like Mann is banking on people knowing who these men are, or just saying that Dillinger is who we’re here to see – and while the other guys are vital parts of the gang, they’re ultimately expendable.

There’s also some amazing – and I have to say, pretty hilarious (even if stressfully so) – moments of Dillinger just flaunting himself to the men that are trying to capture, and in some cases kill, him. There are three vital scenes that feature this. And it kind of comes across as unrealistic that this man, who is beyond famous, can so easily get away with being right in front of the police and government agents, and them not notice him; but it also speaks to the time. Both, in that it wasn’t as easy then to make sure that everyone had a way of making sure they knew who they were looking for. And as is made mention of a number of times in the movie, this is the first time that the government had tried to coordinate and capture people in an organized way. So, there’s a lot of people that are under-trained, just plain stupid and/or incompetent.

Have I mentioned yet, how beautiful this movie is? The costumes in this are exquisite. The details in the sets and locations are amazing. There’s one scene with Billie on the phone, and most of the frame is just this wall with a textured wallpaper that could basically be hung in a gallery. The dresses that the women wear are beautiful examples of the swinging 30’s (or was “swinging” the 20’s?) garments. I do always tend to question just the cleanness and newness of characters clothes in period movies – it does make sense for the bad guys here, as they tend to change clothes like every ten minutes. Of course, it could also be a thematic thing, because as the movie progresses, and things start to go wrong, that’s when stuff starts to get dirty. So, who knows.

Then of course there’s  the performances. I have to say, I would not be surprised to see a number of award nominations come from this movie. If not just for the sheer number of actors and actresses in this movie, then some of the key performances are worthy. First, there are just the characters who appear on screen in only one or two scenes; like Lili Taylor, Channing Tatum and Leelee Sobieski. These people just show up for their few moments, it almost takes as long to recognize them as it they are on-screen (except for Sobieski, who looks stunning, and the same as she usually does). But, then there’s the people that show up a little more often, who we might catch their names but are really just third string characters (although, the roles are filled by top-notch performers), like Giovanni Ribisi, John Ortiz, David Wenham and in an amazing scene as Dillinger’s attorney, Peter Gerety.

Then there’s the big name, stars of the movie. As Billie and the driving force of quite bit of the movie, we have Academy Award winner (LA VIE EN ROSE, which I’ve not seen yet), Marion Cotillard. She does an amazing job, especially towards the end of the movie, in showing how strong this character is. They make mention of her having French ancestry, although I don’t think that they explicitly say she’s from France, and for the most part she does a great job handling the English, but sometimes the inflection just seemed a little off. Billy Crudup, plays J. Edgar Hoover, in his second grand and slightly prosthetic looking character (the first being in the movie WATCHMEN, where he was mostly blue, CGI and naked), here though it looks like they might have given him kind of a bloated neck – and if it’s not makeup, then I apologize – but it was very effective is making his character look strange and well…untrustworthy. As I mentioned there is a scene where he is being questioned by a head of an oversight committee, who asks how many people Hoover has personally arrested, and he responds, “zero. I am an administrator”. Not to compare J. Edgar Hoover to Barack Obama, but that line of questioning just kind of reminded me of the chiding the President took over his job description of “Community Organizer”. (Random, I know.) Also, as both of the main character’s sort of “right hand men”, we have an almost unrecognizable – because he’s so clean cut and not meant to be strange – Rory Cochrane, as the aide to Melvin Purvis. I think that he has only a few lines of actual dialogue, but he’s a continual presence, usually right over Purvis’ shoulder; and then his mirror on the “bad guys” side is Jason Clarke, whose character seems like the closest friend that Dillinger has, and in that mythological kind of way has a feeling of his possible demise. The only other character to really mention here is that of a Texas Ranger-like agent that Purvis brings in, when his government agents aren’t really up for the task of capturing Dillinger. The character of Charles Winstead, is played by Stephen Lang. A man who Michael Mann has used before as a secondary character who pulls in an emotional – if not sympathetic – role, in MANHUNTER, where Lang played the Journalist, that wound up on the wrong end of a serial-killers interrogation. Here is the man who gets the last line in the movie (from what I remember), and is also *SPOILERS* is the main man that kills Dillinger. (It’s a part of history, get over it!)

And then there’s the main man. Johnny Depp puts in a magnificent performance as Dillinger. He’s sure of himself – probably to a fault – but you also get why people loved this guy (while I’m sure being afraid of him). He walks the walk, takes what he wants and when he’s told by Billie that she doesn’t even know him, he says, “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars… and you. What else you need to know?” How can you say no?! While Depp plays the character as someone who enjoys what they do, he also has a deep feeling of wanting to get away from it; especially with Billie in tow and perhaps being haunted by the fact that his luck can’t keep up forever. Not that he doesn’t use it for all he’s worth. One of the most tense, but funny scenes is Dillinger actually walking into a police station, taking an elevator up to a certain floor and walking into an office labeled as the Squad for Capturing Dillinger. And even while, he knows he’s pressing his luck, Depp walks through the scene with a smile on his face, while asking the cops what the score is of the game on the radio.

His opposite number, in a sense, is Melvin Purvis, as brought to life by Christian Bale. It was good to see Bale actually in a movie that doesn’t require him to use the growly Batman voice (even though I am one of the few that don’t mind it). And while I think that Purvis’ character arc is just shown to be one of a person who isn’t mentally capable of living this life – of having to be so up close and personal with death – he still does his best to do his job. And he pulls it off. In the only scene that Bale and Depp have together, Dillinger says pretty much the same thing to Purvis’ face, and you can see that both of these characters can tell that Dillinger is right. It’s not quite the face-off of Pacino and De Niro in HEAT, but it does it’s job.

And lastly, just to talk about the one thing that has been a big subject of interest for this movie; the use of digital video. I have to say, there are certainly moments where the movie loses it’s grand cinema kind of feel in the way that the lighting picks up everything in the scene and kind of flattens the objects down. But for any scene that looks slightly “generic”, for lack of a better term, there are some magnificent shots in this movie. Whether it’s some of the closeups of Depp, the group scenes, such as when the press is questioning Dillinger or people are lighting flares to illuminate dark moments. These are definitely moments where it looks stunning and strangely give the movie a more old-timey feel, while also being state of the art. So, in the end I think that I’m ok with how the movie looked. I didn’t think that there were scenes that looked pixelated and the way that some of the blacks don’t blend very well, helped to give the movie a gritty kind of realism.

So, while in the grand scheme of things, I think that PUBLIC ENEMIES is another top-notch movie by a master of this genre; it’s not quite the return to classic form that I think a lot of people were looking for, but it’s certainly more artfully done and carries more of a punch – even if it’s a less CGI and explodey one – than a number of the other Summer movies that have come out this year. Go see it.

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