Thursday, 2 July 2009

Review: Public Enemies

Year: 2009
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Michael Mann, Ann Biderman, Ronan Bennett
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudrup and a host of character actors you've seen in so many other things it's unreal.

I hate it when I'm sitting at my laptop trying to write a review and the words don't come to me. It's bloody annoying. It's especially irritating when it's about a film I like because what i write never does the film justice. So I'll start with this. I really disliked Miami Vice. Fans will say "I didn't get it" but I think I do. I just don't think it worked for the movie. However I listened to fans of the film and their views on the film and found them truly fascinating. The visuals I found jarring they saw as alluring. My experience of vapid performances, plodding pace are changed to performances of subtle distinction and a film with a quiet rhythm of it's own. The action set pieces however, are something both me and the fans agree on; as they are brutal, true to life and intense. It's a shame I didn't like the rest of the film really because the last act has a gunfight that can only be match by the likes of director Michael Mann's own Heat.

This brings me to Mann's latest feature, Public Enemies, a film based on the non-fictional book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough. The film tells the tale of the brief life of John Dillinger who was a real life Robin Hood during America's great depression (great timing there!). Mann's story details the last few year of the criminals life, from his jail break in 1933 to his eventual death in 1934.

Dillinger is given life by a absolutely mesmerizing Johnny Depp who puts forth a display which remind us why he's one of the best actors of his generation. Many praise his "out there" roles because they're quite easy to highlight. The likes of Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands and the like are of course great parts, but it's the parts like this (and a lesser extent Finding Neverland) which remind me why I admire him as an actor. When the eccentric ticks and outrageous costumes and quirks are removed Depp still commands a screen as well as yester year legend. I loved him in this role and so did Michael Mann's digital camera (which I'll try to explain later).
Depp's presence is key here and it dominates almost everything on the screen (except the set pieces). In fact Depp almost knocks the quietly accomplished display by Christian Bale into touch, but this only may be due to the character Bale has to portray.

While Dillinger is a slightly showy (yet deeply focused) character, Bale's character of Pervis is one of flase confidence and almost reluctance. Both actors play their roles as world weary ones, as they've lived there respective lives so quickly and so fast. Dillinger has a James Dean live young die fast streak to him while Pervis is a character so wrapped up in the beginnings of the FBI and catching these quick thieves it's almost unsurprising when we discover his fate at the end of the film.

Mann's interpretation of Dillinger isn't too far off from his fictional character of Neil McCauley (or many of his crime characters). A fast thinking and intensely focused Man. However due to the time frame of this movie. Those expecting bank Heists a la Heat may be disappointed.

While detailed, Dillingers first heists in Public Enemies are short sharp affairs with seemingly little or no planning around them. Almost as if Dillinger had been doing them for so long that he recognisedthat each bank followed the same script and utilised the same plan with little or no changes. It's amazing to see the contrast between not only the Dillinger planned bank jobs to the manic, desperate heist pulled off with help from Baby Faced Neilson (scenery delightfully chewed by Stephen Graham) but also from the point of view from Heat in which the bank heist is the jewel of the film whereas here they are many side note to the stunning hideaway shootout.
Mann's direction of his action set pieces are once again impeccable and after the flashy and colourful effects of Star Trek and the CGI overkill of Transformers there's something refreshing about Mann's brutally realistic gunfights.

In fact due to the films mixture of the digital camerawork and 30's timeline give it a completely different feel from other gangster movies. The mesh of old and new truly sets it apart from anything else that's appeared recently, but I expect nothing less from the man who brought you what many consider one of the definitive crime films of the nineties.

It doesn't end there however as while I complained about Mann's visual style in Miami Vice, I find that it totally works for me here. So much so that I may need to watch Vice again, to reassess what I saw. The film is full of Bergman-esque close ups which capture every detail and nuance of the actors. The visuals also give the film an intimate feel, a stark contrast to Heat's epic feel. In fact the pivotal scene in which Dillenger and Pervis finally meet in jail owes more to Mann's Manhunter than the coffee scene in Heat (although the scene wryly riffs on both of them).

If there's one thing I must say against the film it's that while the films screenplay is witty and economical (despite it's 140 run time) there's so much going on in within the films timeline that it doesn't fit in all the subplots that run throughout the narrative. Supporting characters such are pushed to the side (Marion Cotillard's love interest is hurt the most despite a good performance) and Dillenger hogs all the limelight. Not much is said about the beginning of the FBI, while there's a coast to coast bookies racket which is just simply underdeveloped and seemingly used to push the plot forward a little.

But I can't bitch too much. I wanted a summer film with plot and I got one. Public Enemies is the strongest film I've seen this summer while that's not saying much this summer, It does show that Michael Mann is still one of the best working filmmakers when it comes to the murky depths of crime. This film has so much going on and it hits the ground running but like it's lead character it's always in control.

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