Friday, July 24, 2009

Public Enemies

I wanted to like Michael Mann's Public Enemies a good deal more than I actually did, mostly based on my enjoyment of past Mann efforts like Heat and The Insider and the way Mann gets his actors to strike wonderful notes of masculine desperation. (Has anybody gotten better work out of Pacino in the last 15 years?) Public Enemies is not really an action film but rather an story of two professionals caught up in changing times. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) finds his self-contained, freewheeling bank robbing crew in danger of falling out of favor with Mob bigwigs in Chicago who are newly monetized thanks to income from gambling operations. FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is a part of the new, modern FBI created by J. Edgar Hoover (wonderful Billy Crudup). Purvis is put in charge of the Dillinger case but quickly realizes that a rougher style is needed to catch Dillinger and brings in a crew of older agents led by an excellent Stephen Lang. Yet as the case progresses Purvis grows increasingly uncomfortable with what's required of him and intervenes to stop the beating of Dillinger's girlfriend (Marion Cotillard) by a colleague.

There's a stylistic coolness to Mann's films that his leading men can usually penetrate but neither Depp nor Bale (whose jailhouse scene together is one of the film's best) has enough to work with for Public Enemies to be more than a surfacey good try. I had no sense of the darkness in Depp that drove him to rob banks as opposed to doing something else, and in a relatively nonverbal film the "I like baseball....what else you need to know?" speech stands out as a writerly affectation. Bale's performance is miles better than his work in Terminator and gets better the more desperate Purvis becomes, but his work still feels almost willfully underbaked especially after a closing title reveals Purvis killed himself in 1960. (Though there's some doubt) Finally Public Enemies wants to be too much: an action film, a period drama (which it utterly fails at thanks to the overly determined cinematography), and a portrait of conflicted psychology (intermittently successful). Michael Mann seems more at home in our bustling, insecure modern world than the small towns of the 1930's American Midwest.

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