Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Enemies

There may be no major Hollywood director as underrated as Michael Mann. Only Martin Scorsese can claim to capture America's seedy underworld better, and even the master lacks Mann's attention to detail. He's far from a "style over substance" director, though; masterpieces like Heat and The Insider take the time to examine their characters outside the superb action sequences. Sadly, that character examination is sorely lacking in his new film, Public Enemies, in which his characters are so calculatingly shot that they might as well be a part of the beautiful backgrounds.

Maybe that's the point: too many films destroy our mythic figures by applying cheap psychology to them, and Mann is trying to spare us yet more talk of abusive fathers or warped moral codes. Such explanations are hinted at, but they're delivered through lines that mock such conventions, as if the movie buff Dillinger is as sick of them as we are. Yet a film with a known outcome needs some sort of revisionist analysis to justify its existence, especially one clocking in at two and a half hours.

As a result, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale – two of the most brilliantly off-kilter actors in the business – never get to sink their teeth into their roles, those of infamous gangster John Dillinger and FBI agent Melvin Pruvis, respectively. These men, as with the cop and robber in “Heat,” are perfect foils for one another: Dillinger robs banks because he cannot accept authority, while Purvis is trying to prove the usefulness of the FBI, which is still in its infancy in the ‘30s. Both spend a great deal of time staring into the dying eyes of fallen comrades, only furthering their resolve.

However, Mann spends so much time playing up both sides as heroic archetypes that neither ever becomes interesting. Heat worked because both the cop and the robber were trapped, tragic victims of their own pride and world view. Pacino and De Niro's characters were perfect foils because they saw in each other a kindred spirit, the only person who could fully understand their turmoil. There is no equivalent to the diner scene in Public Enemies, nor is there even a successful juxtaposition between the two: we merely see the Robin Hood-esque robber and the agent who is no less heroic for taking him down.

Dillinger and Purvis duke it out in a Depression-era America painstakingly researched and perfectly recreated that it would look as real as anything you’d see on your own street corner even without the documentary-like direction. But that camera work, combined with the sharp detail of digital cameras, makes the film feel more like a technical exercise than a visceral crime epic.

Nevertheless, Mann has a gift for pacing, and Public Enemies zips along despite its padded length, which lapses into a loop of planning-robbery-aftermath. Its action scenes, the best of which being the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, jump out of nowhere and, true to heists and crackdowns, are over as soon as they begin. The little details of Dillinger's heists, from letting the customers keep their money to tying hosting to the getaway car to discourage any gunfire, give these scenes a sense of visceral realism. True to form, Mann makes the gunfire loud and the muzzle flashes blinding -- be sure to bring some aspirin with you, just in case.

If only the actors had something to do, they might have filled the gap between these brief but overpowering shooting matches. Marion Cotillard, in her first role since her Oscar win for La Vie en Rose, is completely flat as Dillinger’s main squeeze, and Billy Crudup brings nothing more to the role of J. Edgar Hoover than a bad accent. Mann has an under-appreciated knack for getting great performances from his actors, be they master craftsmen like Al Pacino and Daniel Day-Lewis or more star-oriented players like Tom Cruise and Will Smith (who genuinely earned his Oscar nomination in the otherwise unremarkable Ali). Only Stephen Graham’s manic portrayal of Baby Face Nelson breaks free of the cage that holds everyone else; Dillinger lives the gangster life for the media that turn him into a sensation, but Nelson is just plain crazy, and Graham pulls it off beautifully.

I don't want to suggest that the film is boring, mind you; the shootouts only continue to prove that Mann is the finest action director working today. But what's with the shaky-cam? The reason why the battle in Heat remains one of the great cinematic gunfights is the simple fact that you can tell what's going on. In an age where action editing consists of forcing a first-person perspective on the audience to the point that we can no longer make out all the vast special effects, I was looking forward to Michael Mann showing the kids how to do it right. These scenes vacillate between the artful camera work that defined his old action sequences with the hands-on digital approach that informed recent work like the brilliant Collateral and the misfire Miami Vice, and they left me wanting more even as I was absorbed in the moment.

In the end, “Public Enemies” is a technically resplendent film that never shifts out of first gear until its chief action sequence, only to shift down again as soon as it’s over. Mann always was too fond of his scripts, which sometimes paid off (Heat) and sometimes derailed what might have been a decent flick (Miami Vice); this most definitely fits the latter. Well, assuming this film has a point at all, because I've yet to figure out why Mann made it at all. As it is, it’s certainly worth your money as a popcorn flick, but too much of this film, right down to its title, is uncharacteristically and tragically generic.

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