Wednesday, August 05, 2009

488 - Public Enemies review

Michael Mann’s gangster epic “Public Enemies” is not a biopic as advertised, but a thriller about two men whose personalities and professions put them on a collision course. Mann has established himself as contemporary cinema’s master of the cop/criminal personality conflict, producing minor classics such as “Heat” and “Collateral” (and unfortunate drivel like “Miami Vice”) that are powered by square-jawed gunmen with missions to complete and no apologies to make for doing so.

Here, he reaps fertile ground by utilizing America’s real-life criminal heyday as paints for his canvas, blending an array of actual personalities with the cinema’s requirements for a thriller that’s blunt, efficient, and exciting. Mann’s criminal is John Dillinger, perhaps America’s most famous bank robber and almost certainly the smartest amongst the ones who gained infamy. As played by Johnny Depp, he’s a cool customer who executes his robberies with the focus and skill of a soldier. When he tells the apple of his eye “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you,” Mann is deftly stating not only the obvious, but the essential: to Dillinger, bank robbery is the means to an end, allowing him to reap rewards that would not come from other avenues. Dillinger the man is like anyone else, Dillinger the bank robber dresses elegantly, dates beautiful women, and gets to drive as fast as the car can go. The world is his to do with as he pleases, as long as the law stays a step behind. All that’s missing is the baseball.

Melvin Purvis, henchman to a rising J. Edgar Hoover, is Dillinger’s pursuer, and carries the dubious distinction of being the most outclassed lawman to occupy a protagonist slot in a Mann picture. Portrayed by Christian Bale, Purvis is a determined man, a veteran of gangster hunting (his first scene sees him calmly wax Pretty Boy Floyd with a rifle), but largely hopeless against his quarry, repeatedly bungling his attempts to apprehend Dillinger, usually at great cost to others. During the infamous shootout at Dillinger’s Little Bohemia hideout, a breathless kick of a sequence, Purvis recklessly empties his Thompson submachine gun into a car of civilians, killing several. Later, as a policeman brutalizes Dillinger’s girlfriend, and as Dillinger meets his (un)timely end after a watching a Clark Gable movie, we’re made privy to Mann’s commentary on law enforcement: the criminals may be bad, which means that the police must be better, morally and tactically, and it’s a tragedy when they’re not. Mann, rightly or wrongly, envisions shades of Ruby Ridge and Waco at Little Bohemia, law enforcement recklessness combined with automatic weapons for tragic result.

In 1995’s “Heat,” Mann’s cop/criminal pairing (Al Pacino and Robert De Niro) treated each other politely, like colleagues. In “Public Enemies,” it’s only Dillinger who extends such a hand, shedding light on the dynamics of a rivalry where one man far outmatches the other. Depp and Bale share only one scene, but it’s a tense one that highlights Dillinger’s confidence and Purvis’ inadequacies. Mann knows that every action has its reaction, kicked into gear here when Dillinger makes his prison break with a wooden pistol and gives Purvis a second chance to forget about the Alive part of being Wanted and to focus on the Dead. History is largely discarded as spectacularly filmed and choreographed gun battles erupt, virtuoso and surprisingly numerous engagements that make a delightful alloy out of 1930’s equipment and 21st century filmmaking. Although Dillinger and Purvis both have dual roles and protagonist and antagonist, the film’s sympathy ultimately lies with the former, not as the real life thief and murderer, but as a man who took what he wanted, and if someone got in the way, then what happened to them was just business. It’s the film’s eventual dedication to Dillinger that ensures the excellent “Public Enemies” will be another minor classic, as slightly more investment in Purvis’ plight would have brought the picture perfect balance.

Shot in digital, Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti manage to suffuse grittiness with clarity, bringing the period to life even as Dillinger, his gang, and their pursuers shoot it to pieces.


Heidi said...

I felt the characters were shallow. Especially Christian Bale's as Purvis. I really, really, really wanted to like this movie. In general, I am a fan of mobster movies - but this one let me down. Big time.

James said...

There were alot of complaints in that area, but I really felt their motivations, especially Dillinger. Purvis is definitely the weaker character, but I think Bale scored a huge rebound from the catastrophically awful "T4." I found him sympathetic even as his character bumbled through the Dillinger pursuit.