Review: “Public Enemies”

July 4, 2009 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

There’s a lot of buzz going around that Michael Mann’s Public Enemies will get nominated for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars.  It may, considering the new rule the Academy is implementing, allowing for 10 nominees instead of the usual five.  However, Public Enemies is one of those movies where, while good and featuring good performances, is just that: good.  Not great, just good.

Public Enemies, based on a book of the same name written by Bryan Burroughs, tells the story of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), branded America’s Public Enemy #1 by the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Hot on his heels are the FBI’s director, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), and the head of the FBI’s Chicago office, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).  The chase Dillinger all over the Midwest, occasionally arresting him, only to find out he somehow escaped, and frustrated at having to do it all over again.  Also interesting to see is Dillinger’s relationship with other criminals of his day.  He’s the one bad guy you cheer for, and pretty much everyone else, like Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), you’d want to see locked up.

Depp, as usual, is fine in his performance.  Will he be nominated for a Best Actor in an awards ceremony sometime next year? Sure.  The thing is, the performance feels like Depp playing at John Dillinger, and not so much being John Dillinger.  He’s the cool guy every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with, regardless of his career choice of robbing banks.  What makes him so likeable is his smooth way of handling ladies, his nonchalantness with the fuzz, and his calculated actions when stealing money from banks, or breaking out of prisons.  It’s also Dillinger’s confidence; he knows what he wants, knows how to get it, and knows how to deal with others that may not want him to have it.  Johnny Depp’s performance feels like someone playing exactly all the right notes to get these points across.  Most likely, Depp planned out his entire portrayal, and just executed what was his notes.  Not that it’s a bad thing; again I think his performance is good, it just feels like it lacks the spontaneity, especially compared to Depp’s other performances (like Capt. Jack Sparrow or Sam from Benny and Joon).

The supporting cast does a decent job, with Bale turning in a nice performance.  Purivs is a man who feels like he has a purpose, but often runs into walls, usually in the form of his subordinates, who may not be as ‘together’ as he is. Marion Cotillard plays Billie, Dillinger’s girlfriend; she’s OK here, too, but it’s not exactly a performance that I’ll remember next year.  Stephen Lang also has a bit part as one Purvis’ G-Men, Agent Winstead.  His role is small, but he’s damn good in it, especially at the end.  I also liked Crudup’s Hoover.  There’s a scene early on where someone question’s Hoover’s ability to lead despite a lack of experience, and it made me think of Hoover’s motivation for wanting to catch Dillinger.  Was he trying to prove himself to others?  Was he obsessed with fighting crime?  I also did feel sorry for him.  Hoover is trying to lead this new national law enforcement agency, and they’ve got the right ideas and the fanciest new equipment, but they’re all pretty green at this.  Their plans are generally poorly executed, and in one scene with Bale, poorly planned.  Still it was interesting to see the fledgling FBI go toe-to-toe with some of the most dangerous criminals America has ever known.

The real star of the show is Dante Spinotti, Michael Mann’s Director of Photography.  They’ve worked together before, and here the two have begun to finesse their use of digital cinematography. Just like Mann’s previous two films, Collateral and Miami Vice, Mann has chosen to go with a modern-day, almost home video look, foregoing film and capturing straight to high-definition.  Unlike most filmmakers that use HD (like Alex Proyas and George Lucas) Mann and Spinotti don’t make any attempt to have this movie look like film.  All the hard edges, occasionally flat images, and skin imperfections that make other filmmakers shy away, attract Michael Mann.  It’s an interesting dynamic, also, to consider the time frame the movie takes place in: the 1930’s, and how technology used to tell modern-day and even futuristic tales is helping to tell the story.  Unfortunately, for me at least, the image was jarring at first.  I felt a bit of a headache with all the crazy shaky camera movements displayed on the big screen, but I got used to it.

The film’s art direction is superb, with Mann ignoring all the usual visual flare that may accompany a period piece.  There are no sweeping shots of Depression-era Chicago, no wide vistas of the skyline of 1930’s America.  It’s as if the movie was shot in the 30’s and therefore there’s no need to visual explain where, and when, we are.  All the cars, clothing, and set dressing feel accurate and lived in, exactly as they should.

The sound design also deserves special mention.  Love it or hate it, Mann’s Miami Vice had some excellent sound.  When a gun fired, you didn’t hear it, you felt it.  Same goes for Public Enemies.  When some rattles off a Thompson machine gune, you don’t just hear rapid fire pop pop pop, you feel it in your chest and in your ear drums.  There’s a shootout that occurs in the woods, and it sounded like a war was going on.  Pistols fired with such ferocity that I nearly jumped what I heard them, and shotguns blasted so hard it made the seats shake a little.

Public Enemies is a good, solid period drama, with occasional bursts of action.  It’s the first ‘serious blockbuster’ of the summer, offering movie-goers something with a little more substance than giant fighting robots, flashy spaceships, or museum pieces coming to life. Film students studying cinematography or sound design would probably have a field day over this.  However, it falls into some pacing and story problems that keep this movie just shy of greatness.  Certainly it isn’t a bad picture by any means, just one that may get lost in the awards rush by the end of the year.


(images from Yahoo!)


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