July 2, 2009

Review: The Two Johnnys – 'Public Enemies'

I don't care what anyone says, I actually liked the digital cinematography used in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. While I acknowledge and often agree with criticisms against Mann's filmmaking, I greatly admire his work. I'm one of those people who enjoyed Mann's film adaptation of his iconic 1980's television series, Miami Vice. The film's look and feel may jar many. It has a very obvious digital feel, very similar to other Mann films, Collateral and Miami Vice, but unlike David Fincher's Zodiac, or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which also used similar digitial cinematography and cameras.

I can totally see how many people will find this film boring or flat. It does nothing to build the characters or really introduce them. At times it is slow in its methodical pace and cerebral delivery as it explores characters and their actions and morals. There is virtually no setup. It's the Depression. People are robbing banks and John Dillinger played by Johnny Depp is one of them.

Through a few scenes, we can feel the stature and presence that Dillinger and his pursuer, Christian Bale as FBI Agent Melvin Pervis, hold. There is no mythological buildup of these larger than life characters. There is no glamorization of 1930's era bank robbers or the FBI, for that matter. This has a raw feel emphasized with soft lighting and hand held camera work. This is not your father's gangster film; nothing about Public Enemies is conventional. It uses modern filmmaking techniques to tell a very old story.

Christian Bale is a bad ass. I am so use to Bale as Batman where he precisely takes down his opponents without resorting to killing, that when Bale's Pervis takes down the bad guys, it is incredibley satisfying. Depp is charming as usual and is the epitamy of cool as he slickly plays a bank robbing 1930's version of himself. Like with most of Mann's work, the main characters are ardent professionals, the best at what they do, and they live by a code of conduct.

Dillinger and Purvis are different sides of the same coin and throughout the picture, they are on a path that must inevitably end in a collision where one of them is doomed to fall. Oscar-winner, Marion Cotillard as Dillinger's loyal girlfriend is given little to do until the very end and is primarily used in act breaks to break up the action and crime scenes. The underdeveloped love story is the weakest part of the film by far. Frankly, it only serves to pad the films lengthy run time to 2 hours and 20 minutes.

As always, Mann knows how to film a shootout, whether it be Heat, Collateral or both versions of Miami Vice. These shootouts are tense, frantic, and gritty. All the supporting characters are solid and feel authentic to the period, especially the various public enemies. Billy Crudup as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is also a standout. Mann picks and chooses from the history highlighted in Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book in his adaptation of the golden age of American crime. Roger Ebert nails it on the head. This is a film that is good but not great. Its aspirations are unclear, but still, Public Enemies is worth the time.
"This is a very good film, with [Johnny] Depp and [Christian] Bale performances of brutal clarity. I'm trying to understand why it is not quite a great film. I think it may be because it deprives me of some stubborn need for closure. His name was John Dillinger, and he robbed banks. But there had to be more to it than that, right? No, apparently not."
Roger Ebert

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