July 01, 2009

Public Enemies

You look real good. Now, let me know when
a plot bubbles to the surface.

Grade: B

Director: Michael Mann

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, and Billy Crudup

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

It is an endless source of fascination that in our pop-culture ethos, renowned criminals are memorialized while those who bring them to justice are either forgotten or vilified. The history of cinema is littered with films that venerate the likes of Al Capone, Billy the Kid, Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy, Bugsy Siegel, and even serial killers like the Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer. On the other hand, lawmen like Pat and Buck Garrett, Bill Tilghman, Bat Masterson, and Delf “Jelly” Bryce are forgotten figures, and film treatments of Wyatt Earp (who was, in fact, a sketchy character) and Eliot Ness are rare exceptions to the rule.

The title of director Michael Mann’s Public Enemies may as well be The Story of John Dillinger. Set in the 1930s, it follows Dillinger (Johnny Depp) during his string of notorious bank robberies, gunfights, and jailhouse escapes alongside fellow miscreants Baby Face Nelson, John “Red” Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter. Equal time is also devoted to Dillinger’s relationship with his torch singer-moll, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

Following the formula of Heat, his superb 1995 crime drama, Mann juxtaposes lawmen with their lawless quarry, separating them by the thinnest of moral dividing lines – indeed, the film’s title eventually assumes a dilogical air. Here, Christian Bale plays Walter Purvis, the G-Man assigned by Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, superb) with the task of tracking and apprehending/killing Dillinger and his cohorts. Dillinger is cast as a violent, cunning criminal, but also a public-relations conscious celebrity keenly aware and proud of his Robin Hood popularity among the Depression-era public. He guns down lawmen to facilitate his dark deeds but eschews suggestions that he expand his enterprise into kidnapping for ransom, surmising that the public would not support such crimes, thereby jeopardizing his reputation and ability to essentially hide in plain sight from the authorities.

Purvis, on the other hand, is a straitlaced ramrod dedicated to bringing his dangerous prey to justice. However, under instructions from a fanatical Hoover to “take the white gloves off,” his G-men often shoot first (often in the back or on crowded city streets) and ask questions later. There is obvious zeitgeist when the “enhanced techniques” federal agents utilize during a brutal interrogation of Frechette nets only false information as to Dillinger’s whereabouts. (And, there’s also obvious and hokey sanctification when Purvis arrives to halt her torture and literally carry her to use the bathroom.)

Mann indulges in procedural glitz from the film’s taut opening sequence, rendering his action set pieces in exhausting, often splendid detail. He has elevated the cinematic firefight to the level of high art, and while many directors shirk from shooting at night, Mann and his new-found penchant for high-definition filmmaking revels in them (as he did in Collateral, Miami Vice, and the final act of Heat). Of note, his recreation of the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, shot on location in Wisconsin, is masterful.

What keeps Public Enemies from approaching the level of masterpiece is a peculiar lack of emotional accessibility to the key characters. This is partly the fault of the filmmaker and partly attributable to the actors. Bale never strays from the no-nonsense lawman, while Depp, in particular, plays Dillinger with a detached sense of aloof calm, rarely cracking his visage to reveal any tumult brewing underneath (a scene when he witnesses the arrest of Frechette being the lone welcome exception).

At the same time, Mann ignores opportunities to explore his subjects’ psyche. Although the majority of the film is notable for its historical accuracy, Mann overlooks the crude, botched plastic surgery Dillinger underwent two months before his death, a potential interpretative device for illustrating the increasingly desperate robber’s growing isolation from his public, his friends, and even the Chicago crime syndicate that once harbored him but now regarded Dillinger and his attention-grabbing ilk as a lightning rod for meddling by federal authorities and lawmakers. Instead, Mann concocts a mildly amusing but obvious scene in which, on the eve of his death, a merely bespectacled and mustached Dillinger strolls into the Chicago police squad room dedicated to his capture, even stopping to ask agents hovering around a radio the score of the Cubs baseball game.

Public Enemies is less a biopic than a glossy, stylish elegy. However, the film ultimately informs us more about Mann’s craftsmanship than the doomed Dillinger – or the men who fell him.

Neil Morris

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