Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Review: Public Enemies, or, Johnny, I Love You, Please Don't Work With Michael Mann Anymore.

We started and stopped doing reviews with Pineapple Express, but it's time to reboot.
In theory, Public Enemies has all the makings of a fantastic film. Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) play cops and robbers in Depression era, gangland Chicago. Release it in the summer and it has all the makings of a runaway success. Action and drama. Seasoned actors with blockbuster draw. Rake in the cash and possibly nab a few nominations. That is, in theory.

In execution, Michael Mann's technically elegant recasting of reality is a pale imitation of both the real thing, and crime saga cinema in general. This is no Bonnie & Clyde. It's not The Untouchables and it's not Miller's Crossing. Instead, it's a scattered epic draped in illusion, and if you take a moment to reflect on what you've seen, you'll realize the illusion ain't so hot. In attempting to tell the cat and mouse story of notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) versus his relentless FBI pursuer Melvin Purvis (Bale), the film seems to miss a connection between the two in favor of perfectly spaced bursts of machine gunfire. There is no tension. Purvis pursues, Dillinger jumps around in a way that seems blissfully ignorant of any potential plots against his existence. We don't see Purvis suffer. We don't see him anguish. We don't see him break his bureau-boy cool demeanor, not really. Same goes for Dillinger. He's stagnant. No neurosis, little in the way of suggesting a thought process beneath his slick exterior.
I'm not saying Johnny Depp doesn't do what he can. He does. Bale turns in a remarkably wooden, second rate performance while Depp is the bright spot in an otherwise bleak film, the confines of the film don't allow him to take Dillinger and truly make him a character. There are brief moments, like the scene in which he insists Cotillard's character ditch her dead end job and leave with him, or when he's meeting the press post-arrest, in which we are allowed to see the potentially charismatic figure Dillinger could have been. These instances are quickly stifled by a combination of underdeveloped script, Mann's editing, and the film's unceasing forward motion towards the inevitable, and notorious (at least if you live in Chicago) back alley end. Let's just come out and say it, with a 143 minute run time, Public Enemies spends about 10 of those minutes developing its characters. The rest is show and hollow, tedious action. The first Transformers film spent more time trying to get the viewer to care about the plight of poor little Sam Witwicky, and that's not saying much. With Michael Mann at the helm and a fantastic character actor like Depp in the primary role, this film should have been an easy A. But alas, it feels like a stripped down, forced version of a much more interesting story. Underdeveloped characters, underdeveloped narrative arc, underdeveloped central conflict. In case you were wondering: Depp and Bale interact exactly once. I'm not asking for a Catch Me if You Can mind game scenario, because i think it's fair to keep it a little more on the historically accurate side, but add some flair and establish the "interactions" through the day to day movements of each character. Make it psychological, for christ's sake. Re-insert the drama into an intensely dramatic story. Really, is it that hard?

Apparently. Don't get me wrong, there are things to see here. The reverted Chicago landscape, for example, is a major player. Depp, as mentioned, manages a great deal with the material provided. And, if you're not too hung up on actually wanting to care about what's going on on screen, you might enjoy the movie as a superficial, well manicured period piece. Just...don't go in expecting too much.

Public Enemies, to use a tired simile, is sort of like a dead shark that keeps swimming. The film has no momentum, but goddamn it if it's not going to reach the finish line anyway. Be forewarned: there were parts where i found myself on the verge of a deep slumber, which is not something that commonly happens with me (seriously, i'm one of the sorts who can watch Assassination of Jesse James... and be at the edge of her seat), especially when Johnny Depp is on the screen (not even in The Libertine, which is a film that may be the cause of a later post). A tremendous disappointment.

2.5 out of 5

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