Posted by: znewkirk | July 8, 2009

Review: Public Enemies

2009 | Director and Writer: Michael Mann (“Collateral,” “Miami Vice”)

Most good Michael Mann films feature a distinguishing action setpiece that exemplifies the stakes for his characters, such as the somber chase on the picturesque cliffs in “Last of the Mohicans,” or the dazzling shootout on the L.A. streets in “Heat.” In Mann’s case, as with many premier directors, form and function are two sides of the same coin, so it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that Mann’s “Public Enemies” both lacks one of these all-important scenes and fails to give any solid reasons why the lives of the famed criminals of the 1930s were important.

John Dillinger lays out the plan for his bank-robber buddies

John Dillinger lays out the plan for his bank-robber buddies

“Enemies” takes an interesting stand in its depiction of real-life populist bank-robber John Dillinger (a decent-as-usual Johnny Depp) as a limelight-addicted rock star masquerading as a felon, but the film quickly loses that edge in the miasma of its accoutrements, such as FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and his robotic, motivation-free quest to bring Dillinger to justice for a chip-shouldered J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), a man dedicated to eradicating the sexy crime of robbery in a new age of coast-to-coast smuggling syndicates and gambling rings.

Dillinger and friends stare up at Chicago's biggest bank

Dillinger and friends stare up at Chicago's biggest bank

Mann attempts to instill the movie with a “Wild Bunch”-like theme—outlaws of yesteryear making a final stand in the face of a changing world—but that thesis is limited by Dillinger’s own desire for the mythic Lady in Red, Billie Frechette (bug-eyed French actress Marion Cotillard), forming a wholly unconvincing relationship that dampens any concrete goals Dillinger might have. Along the way viewers get to see what happened to such luminary killers as Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Or they could just look it up and save two and a half hours.

Dillinger pleads for parlay from criminal-hunter Melvin Purvis

Dillinger pleads for parlay from criminal-hunter Melvin Purvis

In a word, “Enemies” is boring. A major issue—and the main reason why the film fails to achieve the aforementioned stakes-setting action setpiece—is Mann’s continued insistence upon using a rudimentary digital-video filming technique to shoot both high- and low-light scenes, resulting in gunfights that look like BBC documentaries about shadows.  Sadly, the form just doesn’t match the function in this case, deadening any profound thoughts that may be floating around within the margins of the screen.

The big 2nd-act shootout. Baby Face Nelson is on the left

The big 2nd-act shootout. Baby Face Nelson is on the left

And if I’m wrong, and everything Mann meant to say is there to be taken from the tale of Dillinger and his inevitable downfall, then it just may be that Dillinger’s life didn’t really mean anything worth learning about. So why make a movie about him? You got me.

Rating: Two of Five Stars

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Responses

  1. I found the shoot out to be pretty exciting. I could see it though so maybe it was where you were sitting. Your buddy Burton’s Batman Returns was more dark when I saw that but it could have been a burned out bulb. That said there were problems at this screening too. Still I would pretty much agree with your logic and recommend it as a rental.


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