Thursday, July 9, 2009
Day 167: Public Enemies (2009) - Rank 3.5/5
This was easily one of the most anticipated movies of the summer for me, because I have a soft spot for gangster flicks of the 1920's and 1930's. They romanticize leading a life of crime more than pictures depicting the modern day, well-to-do drug dealers ("American Gangster," "Blow," etc.). That, mixed with Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and directed by Michael Mann...it's the perfect formula for summer escapism and fun. And yet, I left the film with the acknowledgement that I'd seen a "good film" despite feeling a little flat.
The film follows the parallel paths of two men: the newly appointed chief for Chicago's G-Men Melvin Purvis (Bale) and the primary target of his efforts, John Dillinger (Depp). Dillinger is a man of the people, lauded as almost a folk hero, for robbing banks but leaving the common man his money. But amongst all these apocryphal accolades is a fair sense of isolation that stems from the absence of a true, close friend or lover. He fills this void with a relationship involving a cloakroom attendant named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotilliard) and as his friends are slowly gunned down by Purvis' men, he grows to depend on her all the more. But in true, catch-22 fashion, the more the two are together, the more he puts the one he loves at risk and the greater the chance Purvis will catch up to him. A lot of the shootouts and jailbreaks are executed with as much accuracy as the amalgamation of history and cinema will allow (Dillinger's escape with a gun carved from wood and covered in shoe polish has always been one of my favorite tales from the era).
It's a strong cast, with Bale being the strongest of the starring trio. He maintains an expression of an impenetrable force, while underneath he's slowly beginning to crack as Dillinger slips through his fingers time and time again and his boss, J. Edgar Hoover () chews him out repeatedly. While Depp is marketed as the selling point for the film and he does a decent job, he doesn't ever "become" Dillinger on screen and Mann might have been well-advised to go for a less prominent or unknown actor for the role. Mann would have also been well-advised to shoot on 35mm film. I understand what he was trying to do - he wanted to break convention by shooting a period piece on an HD cam, possibly to draw a more modern look on past events. My issue is when it comes to a period piece, I enjoy watching something from the 1920's or the 1820's because in the hands of an excellent director, many scenes can look as beautiful as a postcard from the era or an Edward Hopper painting ("Road to Perdition" would be a perfect example of a film that both fits this bill and portrays a similar, gritty plot from the Prohibition/Depression era). The "realistic crudeness" of the camera just disassociated me from being drawn into the era, leaving me as more of a spectator and creating the sense of distance I experienced.
Watch the Trailer