Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Enemies / *** (R)

John Dillinger: Johnny Depp
Melvin Purvis: Christian Bale
Billie Frechette: Marion Cotillard
John ‘Red’ Hamilton: Jason Clarke
Harry ‘Pete’ Pierpont: David Wenham
Charles Makley: Christian Stolte
Homer Van Meter: Stephen Dorff
Baby Face Nelson: Stephen Graham
Alvin Karpis: Giovanni Ribisi
Charles Winsted: Stephen Lang
Phil D’Andrea: John Ortiz
Frank Nitti: Bill Camp
J. Edgar Hoover: Billy Crudup

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Mann. Written by Ronan Bennett and Mann & Ann Biderman. Based on the book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34” by Bryan Burrough. Running time: 140 min. Rated R (for gangster violence and some language).

Who will get Michael Jackson’s children? Who is Lindsey Lohan’s lesbian lover? And, are Brad and Angelina breaking up? The gossip of celebrity has always captured the imaginations of Americans. There was a time when the criminal was celebrity. Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is a movie that remembers this and in it he tries to dig under the skin of one of the greatest criminal celebrities in American history.

John Dillinger was arguably the poster boy of the American criminal at a time when the breed was entering its final spotlight. J. Edgar Hoover’s creation of the FBI would put the nails in the coffin of the criminal celebrity by nationalizing the laws against major criminal acts and demystifying the men the public mythologized by exposing their cold-hearted ways with a cold-hearted approach to law enforcement. In its portrayals of Dillinger and the man who would bring the playboy bank robber down, Melvin Purvis, Mann and his co-writers, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, depict two men driven obsessively toward their fates in American history.

Opening with the famous jailbreak lead by Dillinger at Indiana State Prison, Mann quickly establishes his cold approach to this period picture with handheld camera work and stark landscapes. The jailbreak depicts the brutality these criminals are willing to inflict upon their relatively innocent jailers when one of the escapees feels a guard isn’t moving fast enough. He then shows Dillinger’s own sense of justice as he deals with the hasty cohort with the same violence dispatched against the guard.

Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) portrays Dillinger as an intensely loyal leader who will go to great lengths to help a friend, but won’t suffer fools kindly. Although he is a master of his domain and has imposed himself as a living monument in his stopping grounds in Chicago, there is a slight detachment in his demeanor about what he represents. During one robbery he tells a civilian to put his money back in his pocket. “I’m here for the bank’s money, not yours.” It’s as if he doesn’t notice the effect his actions have on the innocents around him. A colleague of Dillinger’s observes this practice as some sort of joke.

This effect doesn’t escape the attention of Mann, however. During the gunfights—and there are many—in the streets of Chicago, crowds gather as if observing the staging of a play. The gunfire is loud and echoes, as if inside a tin can, through the streets even louder. The sound is unsettling, punctuating the onlookers’ vulnerability. When the gunfire finds its way to the policemen and into the crowd of innocents, there is shock and awe.

Despite his detachment, it’s Dillinger’s inner workings the filmmakers seem to be digging for. His loyalty is fierce, but as his fame rises he moves further into circles where no loyalties lie. Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi, “Flight of the Phoenix”) tries to recruit him for a train job, and he gets mixed up with a job gone wrong involving Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Grant, “Inkheart”). But it is his love affair with French-American Indian coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, “La Vie en Rose”) that provides the opportunity for the FBI to eventually bring him down. Dillinger offers Billie an escape from the everyday grind of the fading depression that drew all Americans to criminal celebrity. As the economy recovered the everyday American needed that fascination less, and so the criminal’s days are numbered and Frechette is pulled down in the undertow.

Mann also shows the criminal spotlight doesn’t extend as glowingly onto the law enforcement community, despite Hoover’s attempts to pull the FBI out of the political arena and into a public relations venue. Although Billy Crudup (“Watchmen”) as Hoover adopts the vocal styling of 1930s crime movies, his performance avoids the temptation of ridicule that Hoover is generally treated to in film. His Hoover is still the power-mongering character usually depicted, but he seems more interested in securing the safety of the country than the Washington bureaucrats.

Hoover’s big publicity launch is based around his decision to place Purvis in charge of the Chicago branch and specifically charged with the apprehension of Dillinger. Christian Bale (“Terminator Salvation”) gives Purvis a discontented yet noble attitude. He is uncompromising, but in a scene where one of his officers is overly abusive to a female detainee, he shows his sense of justice includes compassion. As his suicide years later might suggest, Purvis never quite seems satisfied with his successful results.

As I walked out of the theater, I heard an older gentleman express his dissatisfaction with the film saying, “I thought it’d be more like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.” It struck me that it’s really very similar to that film. It lacks the humor that can be found in that classic, but the basic story is very much the same. Criminals live the highlife until their own habits make them vulnerable. “Public Enemies” begins at the start of that decrescendo.

I think the real reason a fan of “Bonnie and Clyde” might be disappointed with this movie is that this story is no longer fresh. Every criminals-on-the-run picture that has been released over the past forty years has modeled itself after the lives that these real life criminals lived. We’ve seen Dillinger’s story in every fictional criminal of the past forty years and even in the years between when these people lived and “Bonnie and Clyde” broke the mold.

The reality is Michael Mann has made a solid movie here, where the emotions are cold, the guns are loud and the end is etched in history. This is a good period crime picture. Mann has made better movies. His “Heat” really peers into the private lives of both thief and pursuer. “Public Enemies” may not dig as deep, but it’s worth watching.

No comments: