SMSM ’09 No. 20: Public Enemies

July 14, 2009

public enemies

Say this for Michael Mann: boy’s got style. And a period crime drama based on the final crime spree of John Dillinger’s gang should seem awfully natural in Mann’s hands. Especially with Johnny Depp starring as Dillinger to do all the heavy lifting.

In the end though, Public Enemies just kind of leaves me cold.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like in Public Enemies; there’s plenty. Mann is fantastic both at capturing subtle moments between his characters, and at choreographing elaborate shoot-em-ups. Public Enemies has both in spades. Mann’s visual palate is glossy and fussy about detail, and both of these traits suit the film well. There’s really no good reason why the film should feel so vacant.

Yet it does. The Dillinger story itself is incredibly sensational, to the point that the film should have written itself, just based on the oral tradition that has sprung up around Dillinger over the years. And had Mann focused his story more stridently, he would just have to capture it. Instead, he plots out a 150 minute epic from a story that should have run about 105. There comes a point where each bank robbery runs together, each getaway loses its significance.

Mann also splits his time almost equally between the casual excitement of Dillinger hiding in plain sight, and the bland procedural matters involved with FBI agent Melvin Purvis’s (Christian Bale) attempts to catch him. True, Mann is often concerned with documenting every plot move in his films, but this was overkill even for him. On one end of his film, he has danger and intrigue; on the other, he has politics.

Both Depp and love interest Marion Cotillard are dynamic on screen and have a real chemistry, in spite of Mann’s feeble attempts to explain her rationale for falling for a fugitive. Bale is serviceable, Billy Crudup provides a nice take on FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, and tons of fine name actors (Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Leelee Sobieski) turn up for small roles.

Public Enemies has a lot going for it. It’s exciting in parts, beautiful to look at, even wryly funny. Yet the best things about it are almost always the most fleeting.

I get the feeling that there’s something more complex in Mann’s film that I’m missing. Maybe in future viewings I’ll find that out. Or maybe Mann has duped us all.

Film: Public Enemies
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, moderate crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 6
Rotten Tomatoes average: 65%

Next up: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

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