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Review: Public Enemies

The film casts the life of John Dillinger as one defined by the symbiotic relationship between crime and celebrity.

Public Enemies
Photo: Universal Pictures

Part icy Heat noir, part The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford reverie, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies casts the fast life of notorious ‘30s bank robber John Dillinger as one defined by the symbiotic relationship between crime and celebrity, gangsterdom and cinema. Mann’s predilection for both icons and daring heists makes him well suited to adapt Bryan Burrough’s exhaustively researched tome about law enforcement efforts to catch Dillinger and the rest of the era’s bandits. The director doesn’t skirt on his source material’s factual details, but he opts for his trademark cool, dreamy romanticism in depicting Dillinger’s escapades in and around Chicago, from a 1933 prison breakout, through various incarcerations and escapes, to his 1934 death. Embodied by Johnny Depp with preternatural poise and cool, Dillinger stands at a remove from his own life, his bemused smiles and hard stares key elements of a deliberate act of performance. Whether sticking up imposing granite banks or assertively wooing coat-check girl and future paramour Billie Frechette (Mario Cotillard), this Dillinger seems constantly aware that he’s playing a role for an adoring citizenry, his persona— crafted with an eye toward courting favorable public opinion—at once the byproduct of, and inspiration for, big-screen genre larks like Manhattan Melodrama (featuring Clark Gable sporting a Dillinger-esque mustache), which he attends on the night of his demise.

As Andrew Dominick did with Jesse James, Mann envisions Dillinger less as a flesh-and-blood human being than as a near-supernatural archetype, and as in Assassination of Jesse James, his initial means of achieving those ends involves pensive, haunting close-ups of the man set against expansive gray countryside backdrops. Mann idealizes Dillinger while recognizing that, in doing so, he’s partaking in a long cinematic tradition. Yet until a finale in which Dillinger, while leaving a movie theater, is felled by cops working for Christian Bale’s agent Melvin Purvis (who is handpicked by J. Edgar Hoover to make headlines by capturing Dillinger and, in doing so, drum up public support for his stymied plans to create a federal police force), Public Enemies only cursorily addresses its two opposite-sides-of-the-law protagonists’ kindred relationship to the spotlight. The image of a captured Dillinger driving past cheering admirers lining the streets, or of Purvis and Hoover putting on a show for media cameras, certainly makes plain this subtext. Mann’s interest in fully exploring such issues, however, is ultimately fleeting, the fame-related dynamic that’s glimpsed now and again too faint to register as more than a tantalizing but underdeveloped suggestion.

Sensual muscularity characterized the director’s undervalued Miami Vice, and traces of that eroticism bubble up during Mann’s action centerpieces here, in which angular widescreen framing and strapping camera movements (anxiously scored to Otis Taylor’s banjo-infused “Ten Million Slaves”) capture, and celebrate, the grace and power of human physicality. During Purvis’s nighttime raid on Dillinger and Babyface Nelson’s (Stephen Graham) post-heist forest safehouse (culminating in a rapturous shot of Nelson’s blaze-of-glory last stand), the filmmaker reconfirms his capacity for visually encapsulating defiant masculinity. Structured around opposing poles (the stoic Purvis and the charismatic Dillinger), Public Enemies feels leathery hard, even as Dante Spinotti’s HD cinematography drenches the proceedings in sumptuous sepia-toned hues and rich, dark blacks. Nonetheless, whereas Mann’s high-def aesthetic turns shadows luxurious, it falters badly with bright light, resulting in blown-out, pixilated whites that impart a distracting, illusion-defiling sense of watching history up-close-and-personal through the filter of a cruddy camcorder.

While devoid of the sexy steel-blue sheen of Heat, Public Enemies manages to otherwise hew to that crime epic’s narrative template, condensing and simplifying its thematic lynchpins in ways not so much egregious as merely uninvolving. Echoing Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley, Dillinger is a man driven by ritual (note a quick early scene of him cleaning and assembling his machine gun) and beholden to a code of honor involving loyalty to comrades (beautifully evoked in an opening shot-countershot sight of him clinging to a dying cohort as they escape jail via car) and, as his pal Red (Jason Clarke) reminds him, the avoidance of dames. Dillinger ignores this last rule to pursue Billie, a romance lavished with sumptuous visual gestures (a sequence at a horse track has a soft, sunny warmth that’s swoon-worthy), but one that comes off as tacked on and thin, with Billie’s initial, wary facial reactions to Dillinger’s cocky bluster suggesting complications that never materialize. Theirs is an affair constructed with rote Hollywood-ish brushstrokes, making it seem driven not by passion or logic but by screenwriting necessity, and though this too might be chalked up to Mann’s desire to intentionally allude to the real-life tale’s cinematic influences, their central amour proves underdramatized and phony.

With its focus on men striking back at banks during economically treacherous times, and federal law enforcement’s decision—depicted as being advanced not by Hoover but Purvis—that the apprehension of ruthless criminals requires the employment of equally ruthless men and methods, the story is primed for contemporary parallels. However, Mann more or less ignores the former issue (the Depression wracking the country is never seen, thus undercutting the film’s ability to properly explain Dillinger’s celeb appeal) and treats the latter issue with sermonizing melodrama that culminates in a bit of “Good Guys Don’t Torture” corniness. More problematic still, Dillinger is just a dashing cardboard cutout of a noir protagonist, damned regardless of whether he sticks to or strays from his chosen path (i.e. his true nature). And Purvis, despite suitable intensity from Bale, is even more one-dimensional, bestowed with only two traits (determination and by-the-books morality) and asked mainly to serve as the more-alike-than-dissimilar foil for Dillinger’s intimidations during their sole, Heat-photocopied conversation. Arriving at roughly the midway point, it’s a face-to-face showdown primed to explode, but as with too much of Mann’s Public Enemies and its tangled life-imitating-art-imitating-life concerns, it fizzles at the moment of detonation.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Jason Clarke, Rory Cochrane, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang Director: Michael Mann Screenwriter: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2009 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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