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Michael Mannís Public Enemies

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Universal)

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Thursday, July 02, 2009


Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
(Universal)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

“I’m a fiend for mojitos,” Colin Farrell’s Sonny Crockett told Gong Li’s Isabella, taking her up on an offer to escape Miami on a speedboat for cocktails, dancing, sexy showers and sex in Cuba. Like Jamie Foxx’s bedroom antics, the impulsive holiday in 2006’s Miami Vice took some air out of what was a radically dark departure from the campy source show, letting you know that director Michael Mann wasn’t taking it as seriously as all that. Public Enemies, Mann’s also digitally-shot follow-up, has you desperate for something to leaven its grubby brutality. The closest you get is Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in a getaway car singing “Get Along, Little Doggies” to a couple of kidnapped cops, and later brazenly strolling through the Chicago FBI’s cavernous “Dillinger Room,” marveling at all the paper they have on him.

Miami Vice is a peculiar mixture of vérité digital action and Mann’s personal kind of swooning romance. (Collateral was a technical warm-up.) Here he simply seems to be taking the style further, dropping some of the cheerfulness that Vice maintained while substituting greater storytelling scope and an attempt at a full-on love story. In fact, Public Enemies leans rather hard on that romance, between gentleman bank robber Dillinger and his girl Billie Frechette. In interviews, Mann has stated that it’s their relationship, not the one between Dillinger and his FBI rival Melvin Purvis, that most moves him about Public Enemies. Fans familiar with Manhunter, Heat, The Insider and his show Crime Story know the director’s weakness for duels between strong male personalities on either side of right or wrong. Though there are important male-female relationships in all of those, they’re often abstracted, and none are as pivotally centered or as sentimentally rendered as Billie and Johnny’s here.

This focusing works both against and for the film. The love story, which we know is doomed by Dillinger’s imminent death, doesn’t fully “click” until it’s nearly over (although it has affected me more in hindsight). The reason is not that Depp and Marion Cotillard, who plays Billie, aren’t magnetic and believably desirable. His appeal is obvious — as Public Enemy #1, he’s a celebrity outlaw — but it’s his grace and self-confidence she falls for. In a great scene at the hotel coat check where she works, he brashly commands her to quit and follow him, because he has big plans for where they’re going (and it doesn’t matter “where you’ve been”). She’s convinced herself she deserves mediocrity because she’s from humble origins and a “half-breed” (her father was French, her mother Native American). But she’s beautiful, non-judgmental, and open to adventure. They’re a wonderful pair, like Dunaway and Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde but more sophisticated, realistic. The dialogue doesn’t always assist the romantic scenes. Dillinger’s all platitudes and ultimatums (shades of Vice and Heat’s riper lines), but this might be natural considering his life’s oversized urgency.

What makes the love story interesting is how its grace notes of devotion, affection and optimism (when it’s able to hit them) clash with the mashed low-octave chords of the robberies, prison escapes, and FBI manhunt. The “action” (it makes you question the word) in Public Enemies is visceral, but also distancing and nonpictorial. It has precedent in war movies like Saving Private Ryan and the effective Black Hawk Down, and the recent Italian gangster movie Gomorra. There’s obvious care in the shot choices; this isn’t a slapdash Paul Greengrass maximum-edits contest. The pleasure is in watching how Mann locates his unique “romance about romance” in the abundant shaky close-ups and grainy set-up shots. The style is matter-of-fact, but too pronounced and jarring to be dismissed as mere “puts you there” virtual reality. The famous shootout at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin is here what it was in reality: Dillinger and his gang (Baby Face Nelson, John “Red” Hamilton, Homer Van Meter, etc.) draining their stockpiles at Purvis and his fellow ambushing agents, who return as much fire. But even as the sadistic Nelson (a hateful and doughy Stephen Graham) fires gleefully out of windows, there’s an abstract, dreamlike quality to it, as if it’s in slow motion (it isn’t).

Is Public Enemies merely an anti-nostalgia, anti-thrills killjoy? Films like Bonnie and Clyde and John Milius’ Dillinger have known how to have fun with the era. Here, Dillinger legends like his escape from Indiana’s Crown Point Jail with a wooden gun (you can barely tell it isn’t real) and his betrayal by the Lady in Red (wearing her actual orange) go unglorified. The period design and costuming (especially Depp’s sharp suits — Dillinger was dapper) are accurate and handsome. When possible, actual prisons, lodges, and streets were used. But the stubborn DV prevents them from becoming calcified spectacle. Sometimes it’s so hard to tell where you are, it's as if the camera operators had a grudge against the location scouts.

We’ve all seen the lush, caramel-complexioned period tributes to the “spirited, jazz-fueled days” that so often exhaust more than dazzle. Mann’s movie doesn’t attempt to “expose” those films’ phoniness or anything so facile, but the alternative it presents is refreshing. When a train chugs into a Chicago station, there’s no epic crane shot or excessive sea of drape cut suit and fedora-wearing extras scuttling about, just an efficient straight-on shot and a few well-wishers. Mann’s soundtrack isn’t the usual repetition of Thirties jazz swing. Nor is it as extremely anachronistic as his Last of the Mohicans synthesizers. He uses some jazz (Billie Holiday, Blind Willie Johnson), then dilutes it with the retro-modern electric blues guitar of Otis Taylor, some Diana Krall balladry and a subtle score by Elliot Goldenthal (who also worked on Heat).

If Public Enemies were an exercise in empty recreation, a macho “this is the final truth” statement, instead of the oddly personal object it is, there wouldn’t be so many avoidable inaccuracies. Christian Bale’s Purvis first appears taking down Pretty Boy Floyd in an Ohio field, even though this fatal shootout took place months after Dillinger’s death. Nelson and Homer Van Meter are killed fleeing Little Bohemia. In reality, they died months apart, and both also followed Dillinger in death. While it’s true that Dillinger visited the Chicago Fed building (his girlfriend was earning a medical certificate on another floor), there’s no evidence that he entered the FBI area. The last words here given Dillinger are also conjecture. The gang’s Bohemia location is given to the Feds by a gangster under duress of torture, when it fact it was the lodge owner’s wife who tipped them. The fact-smudging serves to complicate Purvis, who becomes disillusioned with the young FBI’s tarnished rectitude, and perhaps make a somewhat sloppy connection to current American torture practices.

The movie never coheres into anything satisfyingly definitive, despite the story’s large canvas. The scenes of this early FBI, with Billy Crudup as a budding slickster J. Edgar Hoover, are scattershot and infused with a bland dankness. The lack of establishing shots or insight into the fear and activities of guards and patrons makes the robberies and escapes claustrophobic and limiting. Even John and Billie’s courtship seems only glanced at. One minute they’re in the tub together, the next she’s being beaten by an apoplectic Irish G-man. But these not-petty beefs contribute to the movie’s nerviness, and seem unimportant when you step away from the movie and appreciate how unorthodox its approach to the genre is. For more typical Mann-flavored Chicago gangsters, there’s already the Sixties-set Crime Story. Public Enemies is something you haven’t seen before.

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