Thursday, July 2, 2009

Public What? Oh, Enemies?

People do seem to love them some Michael Mann. I'm not one of those people, so you should keep that in mind as I review his latest opus, Public Enemies.

I don't hate the guy or nothin'. Well, okay, I used to. During the late days of 1980 and early 1981, it seemed like every movie thata was released wallowed in mediocrity. To some degree that may have been pure happenstance, as there were many, many fewer movie options back then and if you were dedicated, it was hard to avoid seeing bad ones.

One of those movies was the very disappointing James Caan vehicle Thief, Mann's first big-league feature. He followed that up with the even more disappointing The Keep, a nazi-monster horror flick with a great cast. Then he got famous for "Miami Vice," which was fun and quintessentially '80s, and with that fame, he was the first to put Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter onscreen with the remarkably noisy-yet-forgettable Manhunter. That same year he put his name on the downright icky Band of the Hand.

But he got better in the '90s. (That's consensus, not just my opinion.)

I personally find myself not engaged by his movies, generally. They don't resonate with me. Even if I enjoy one of his movies, like Collateral and to a lesser extent the (overrated) Last of the Mohicans, I almost immediately forget them after seeing them. (If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that I like Michael Mann the director more than Michael Mann the screenwriter.)

And now, forearmed with an inkling of my tastes, to Mann's Public Enemies, the story (primarily) of special agent Melvin Purvis' pursuit of notorious Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger in 1933 Chicago. Summary: I found it more or less like Mann's other works; I wasn't engaged, mostly, and I'll forget most of it pretty soon.

But there are some really fine moments in this film. And while it's an ensemble piece, a lot of what works has to do with Johnny Depp's performance as Dillinger. I wonder if it gets tiring hearing how awesome you are, but Depp is ridiculously empathetic as the man whose early incarceration turned him into an effective (yet gentle!) bank robber. Violent, but principled, dangerous but with high standards.

Yeah, it's romanticized, big time. It's kind of weird, even. There are good guys and bad guys among both the FBI, the police and the gangsters, in no particular distribution.

The story arc basically follows Dillinger's breaking into a jail, then returning to Chicago where he embarrasses the G-men, who then resort to increasingly brutal tactics to cover up their general incompetence. Christian Bale is the hard-edged but largely moral special agent who has to carry out J. Edgar Hoover's demands.

Complicating matters for Dillinger is his fledgling yet instantly permanent romance with Billie Flechette (Marion Cotillard of La Vie an Rose and 9/11 and moon landing conspiracy theories), for whom he tries to take responsibility, and who (of course) becomes his weakness. (Actually, upon reflection, this aspect of the story is almost Harlequin-esque, which may make it popular with the ladies.)

She's not as big a weakness as The Syndicate, which is becoming mighty unfriendly to these bank robbing celebrities who attract unwanted attention to illegal activities.

You get the idea.

I was distracted. There were about 20 interesting stories here, and I felt like we got the most banal one. Which could've made for a great movie, mind you, but it was also unfocused. Give us the love affair and the noble bank robber, if that's the story you want to tell.

The Boy liked it, I should point out, so I may just be making excuses for why this film didn't ignite my toes like it is for Mann fans. He did express disappointment that it wasn't about the economic underpinnings of organized crime; I don't have the heart to tell him that they don't really make movies about the economic underpinnings of organized crime. (Though last year's Rock 'n' Rolla came pretty close!)

But, damn, there was an interesting story right there: How The Mob was in bed, then out of bed, with the bank robbers.

There's another scene with J. Edgar Hoover trying (and failing) to get money from Congress for the FBI, and being thwarted by a principled man who saw the danger in a national police force and the threat particularly posed by Hoover. Interesting.

There's Dillinger himself: Rough upbringing, stupid life choice early on, forged into a criminal by the system, but still drawn to this low class girl with integrity, and fiercely protective of her. But why? What really happened? Where did he get his principles from? Interesting.

And, wow, what about a society (America during the Great Depression) that venerates bank robbers? That has so little faith in the system that it roots for criminals, but at the same time elects the same man President over and over again. (The former is a big part of the story, the latter not so much. )

Anyway, I just kept thinking of all these interesting things that would never be developed.

Really fine acting, of course. Though I have trouble with these period pieces, 'cause they all kind of dress alike and have similar hair cuts, but I did manage to distinguish, generally. The lighting doesn't help, however: A lot of the interior shots look "naturally" lit, i.e., details of faces hard to make out. (Fincher does that, too, but you always know who you're looking at even if you can't make out their face.)

The use of the shaky-cam--well, it wasn't gratuitous. It indicated a certain kind of shift in the action. But it distracted me. As did Mann's trademark use of music. The score was good, but it irritated me the way it was worked into the action. The songs were hit-and-miss.

So, there you have it. If you like Mann's work, you'll probably love this. If you like Depp, you won't hate it.


  1. Wisconsin recently passed laws that allowed special tax status to film endeavors. Part of this film was filmed in my little town of Columbus, Wisconsin [population: oh, about 4000]. The winter exteriors of the bank robbery were my downtown and the love scenes were in the Poser mansion, 4 blocks up the street from my little Victorian girlhood home. Johnny Depp was greeted as a conquering hero and Marion Cottillard had just won her Oscar. The local Senior Center is doing a bus trip to the movie premier, followed by an early dinner. That's right. A town so small it doesn't even have a movie theater. But Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan designed 3 buildings in the town.

    Anyway. I'm inclined to go and watch it just to see my home town on the big screen. I'm not much of a Depp fan, but I do pull for the little rural small towns, especially the one I know and love so well. That 'pulling for the little guy' might explain Dillinger's attaction to folks like me.

  2. I'll probably go see it, like Ruth Anne, just to see a little Wisconsin town make it to the big time.

  3. Most of this is historically accurate but often glossed over in other films about Dillinger and the bank robbers of the time.
    Read up on the Kansas City Massacre in which there was a massive shoot out when the FBI tried to bring to justice Frank Nash and they were attacked by Pretty Boy Floyd and Vern Miller.

    They were armed and abbeted by the Kansas City Mob which was controlled by the Pendergrast Machine which gave us President Truman. This led to the FBI carrying guns at all time and let Hoover turn the dogs loose like Purvis.

    Although Johnny Depp sort of looks cool enough to be Dillinger, the can only be one real Dillinger: Warren Oates.


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