Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Public Enemies

I had heard mixed reviews, so wasn't expecting anything great from Public Enemies. I like--don't love--Michael Mann movies, but I do love Johnny Depp, so I gave it a shot.

I can't say that I hate it, but I can say that it is the least substantial, least subtle movie I've seen in a while--and that might even include Twilight.

Starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, packed with excellent actors and helmed by a skilled director, Public Enemies should've been a glorious gangster romp. Or it could've been a sober, thoughtful story about crime and the Depression and right and wrong. But aside from a few scenes of overzealous police officers abusing Dillinger associates in hopes of information that were clearly, heavy-handedly meant as metaphors for our current torture debate, the movie is nothing but a series of somewhat repetitive set pieces, bank heists that are nothing but some stylized movements and entirely too much gunfire, and a love story that has exactly zero tension.

There's some chemistry between Depp and Marion Cotillard (as Billie Freshette), but from the minute they meet, Dillinger is telling Freshette that she's going to fall for him and she gets precious little choice. She walks out on him when he tells her to wait once, and gets petulant one other time, but other than that, the absolute lack of any development to their relationship makes an ending that I'm sure the screenwriter thought was fraught with emotion fall flatter than roadkill.

Indeed, there's really no tension in this movie whatsoever. You know from the start how it ends, and there's no indication ever that Dillinger might give up robbing banks, or that he has any qualms about it. Sadly, there are plenty of points that could've been made--the contrast of Dillinger with the uber-violent Baby Face Nelson, perhaps, or more interaction between him and Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis, the stone-faced cop whose entrance in Naziesque knee boots and slicked hair was certainly intentional.

Bale has two emotions in this movie: dead-faced calm and a sudden, confident smirk. The space between them is so huge, particularly because his calm doesn't play as thoughtful, but rather just as blank. He's largely wasted in the role, where at least Depp gets to vamp a bit and to let a little bit of the Jack Sparrow joy show through. Billy Crudup makes an unexpected appearance as a perfectly creepy J.Edgar Hoover, and I would've loved to see more of him, but like most of the cast he was introduced and then forgotten much too quickly.

Characters die with absolutely zero emotion either because you're given no chance to care about them (most of them) or because it's so heavily foreshadowed that you've already written them off by the time they bite the dust. (Sample "Sometimes you just know it's your time, and it's my time." Next scene he's bleeding out in the back of a car. Shocking, that.)

Unlike some critics, I like the digital video the film was shot on, enjoy the grainy feel of it. Mann and his cinematographer Dante Spinotti do some absolutely gorgeous things with the camera in this movie, and it's disappointing that the story doesn't live up to the scenery, so to speak.

Public Enemies isn't about anything, which on its own is fine--I'm all for popcorn movies and would've loved nothing more than a gangster version of Pirates of the Caribbean, with Depp throwing himself into Dillinger the way he did Jack Sparrow and his supporting cast feeding off his frenetic energy to lift a movie way above its source material. Conversely, the economic situation right now is absolutely ripe for Depression-era comparisons, and the movie completely fails to make a single connection aside from the aforementioned torture.

I didn't see Miami Vice, but the feeling I get from Public Enemies was the same slick, soulless one I pictured from the Vice ads, with pretty people posing against pretty scenery. That's not to say it's unwatchable, just that I'm disappointed because I keep comparing it to the movie it could've been.