U.K. Movie Review: Public Enemies
Michael Mann’s latest action-packed, gripping and grown-up says Orlando Parfitt of IGN UK. Public Enemies gets 9 out of 10 stars. Go Johnny! Read on:
Director Michael Mann transposes his unique brand of character-driven cops and robbers action onto the John Dillinger myth. The result is something close to a 1930s version of his caper classic Heat, and also one of the best films of 2009.
Johnny Depp is the infamous, Robin Hood-like gangster John Dillinger, who terrorised Depression-era America with a spate of high profile bank robberies. Along for the ride were his now legendary crew, including Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and his beautiful sweetheart Billie (Marion Cotillard).
Naturally the fledgling FBI weren’t too happy about this state of affairs, with creepy Fed boss J. Edgar Hoover entrusting crack agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to take out the increasingly popular Dillinger.
What follows is essentially a series of brilliantly choreographed confrontations between Purvis and the Dillinger gang, with the two sides engaged in a variety shoot-outs, jail-breaks and all manner of other fisticuffs for much of the movie’s running time.
Its a deceptively straight-forward structure that dispenses with virtually all the clichés associated with the gangster genre, and the 1930s setting in particular, and instead – shock horror – actually trusts the audience to use their brains a bit.
This isn’t a biopic of the famous gangster that takes us on an emotional journey through his life, with him reaching some epiphany, or meeting his deserved, hubristic comeuppance by the end.
Instead Mann presents the real-life protagonists like he does in virtually all his other movies; as ultra-skilled but emotionally damaged experts, driven purely by a sense of professionalism and ego; think De Niro’s thief in Heat, Cruise’s hitman in Collateral or both Sonny and Tubs in (the seriously underrated) Miami Vice.
How and why did Depp’s Dillinger get into robbing banks? Don’t expect Mann to tell you. He starts the film as a fully-formed and rather charming criminal, and remains so – always living in the moment – for the rest of the movie.
That’s not to say that Depp’s performance somehow fails to add depth or nuance to the character. Indeed he excels as the charismatic Dillinger, who is soemtimes distant, capable of turning on the charm at the drop of a hat, and almost always revelling in his celebrity.
He’s not a flamboyant Tony Montana or Al Capone-style archetype, but a real, living human being. Depp’s best work is towards the end of the movie, when he subtly shows Dillinger’s mask of professionalism and charm begin to slip as his circumstances become more desperate as his crew are whittled down.
Bale is given less to do as the taciturn Purvis, but still manages to turn in a subtle performance that is the polar-oppositie of his daft, shouty turn as John Connor in Terminator Salvation. Not a typical, heroic G-man, instead a character that is single-minded and ruthless, but also often decent and conflicted by the increasingly barbaric methods he must employ to get his man.
The supporting cast also turn in complex, rewarding performances, with Stephen Graham stealing every scene he’s in as the unhinged Baby Face Nelson (we’d love to see him given his own spin-off Origins movie.) Cotillard is beautiful and heartbreaking as Dillinger’s moll, with their relationship adding another layer of richness to the film.
It is Mann’s direction however that is the real star of Public Enemies. His unique-shooting style – filming much of the movie on super-high definition handheld cameras – manages to give the movie both an air of documentary-style realism, and yet also a strange, dreamy feel. It’s like watching a documentary crew follow Dillinger and his gang for a couple of years and sets the movie apart from the numerous other 1930s gangster pics.
What this shooting style also heightens however is the many, many action scenes. No-one shoots gunfights quite like Michael Mann. His swooping, ducking camerawork – usually in long takes – and brilliant use of thudding sound means the audience feel the impact of every bullet (in contrast to the chop-heavy, confusing cutting style of certain other top Hollywood directors).
Nonetheless Public Enemies is not that easy to watch at times. Don’t expect to enter the cinema and completely switch off your brain. Sometimes events can get a little confusing, with Mann bringing in supporting characters and sub-plots – such as scenes with Hoover and mafia don Frank Nitti – that often don’t get resolved or add to the central narrative.
However these elements inexorably enrich the movie, showing the wider world, the context of Dillinger’s existence and the changing nature of American crime and law enforcement during this period. Several viewings are essential to fully appreciate Public Enemies.
After the nonsensical, exhaustingly stupid Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and the humourless, characterless and forgettable Terminator Salvation, it’s refreshing to see some grown-up mainstream filmmaking during the summer months. Public Enemies, as with The Dark Knight last year, shows you can have star-driven action films that also deliver an emotional and visceral punch during blockbuster season.