Public Enemies

July, 2009, Thriller

Director Michael Mann’s new gangster movie is a gorgeously mounted paean to those classic black & white crime films of the Depression era that introduced audiences to stars like Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and George Raft. With daring daylight bank robberies capped by running-board shoot-outs with the police, Public Enemies recreates the period in the early 1930’s when John Dillinger and swaggering confederates like Baby-Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd terrorized financial institutions across the Midwest, catapulting J. Edgar Hoover into the post of federal crime czar at the F.B.I.

Mann, who has dazzled movie and television audiences for over 30 years (Miami Vice, Thief, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider) can arguably be called one of Hollywood’s premier action directors and he demonstrates that prowess once again with his unique blend of narrative skills and gripping visual sense. Ably supported by the lush cinematography of Dante Spinotti, (the cameraman’s 4th collaboration with Mann) a compelling performance by Johnny Depp as Dillinger and an impressive turn by Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the G-man who brought Dillinger down, Public Enemies promises to be the latest entry in the director’s extraordinary body of work. And yet…

Enemies opens with a brutally executed prison break and for nearly 2 and ½ hours thereafter co-mingles elegant decadence and explosive mayhem as it cuts from one brazen crime to another, interspersing its compulsively-mesmerizing violence with precisely observed details about the way these criminals lived, brazenly looting their targets while evading the bureaucratic efforts of federal and state police officials to kill or capture them. The movie sports an exceptionally large cast and at times the director presents his the characters with such brief  introductions that the storyline becomes momentarily confusing, but as the crime wave metastases from Indiana to Iowa to Wisconsin to Chicago’s Loop, the plot gains focus, allowing Mann to present the early years of F.D.R.’s first term as president as a period in which the nation’s collapsing economy somehow caused daring crimes to become glamorized and their perpetrators awarded the status of today’s more flagrant rock stars. Dressed in elegant suits, driving luxury cars and dining in the most expensive restaurants, Mann’s crooks epitomize the cliché that crime – at least in the short term –can pay very well indeed.

Depp’s rakish Dillinger is loyal to his pals, compulsively addicted to instant gratification and snidely condescending to the intimidated police officers who first incarcerate, then lose him, only to wind up facing further embarrassment when on several occasions, he eludes their elaborate but poorly coordinated efforts at his recapture. In the midst of his peripatetic crime wave, Dillinger falls in love with Billie Frechette, a hat-check girl played by Marion Cotillard, the French actress who nearly chewed through the scenery playing Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. As Dillinger’s lover, Cotillard throttles back on the histrionics of her last movie to create a realistic portrait of a wonderfully sympathetic working-class woman who falls for the obsessive attentions of the wrong kind of man and the dangerously glamorous outlaw life to which he’s dedicated himself. Depp, so sweetly benign as James Barrie, the gentle creator of Peter Pan (Finding Neverland) and deliciously fey as the pirate captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, combines just the right mix of understated menace and cocky charm to fashion a gangster macho enough to lead a band of ruthless cutthroats yet charming enough to sweep an impressionable girl off her feet. His scenes with Cotillard provide the most interesting and credible screen romance of the year.

Mann has always chosen the supporting members of his casts with the same attention to detail he brings to the other aspects of his films and Public Enemies bristles with faces you’ll recognize from lots of previous movies; Giovanni Ribisi appears too briefly as Alvin Karpis, a thug who matched Dillinger’s skill in planning elaborate armed robberies, the compelling but seldom-seen Stephen Lang offers the quintessential portrait of a hard-boiled lawman equally comfortable with capturing villains or gunning them down and Billy Crudup’s caricature of J. Edgar Hoover gives Enemies a richly comedic change of pace.

As the F.B.I.’s efforts to apprehend Dillinger repeatedly fail, Bale’s Purvis ratchets up the brutality employed by his numerous underlings until their actions become as viciously reprehensible as those employed by the men he’s pursuing…but tight-lipped persistence and access to the nearly limitless funds provided by Hoover gradually begins to chip away at Dillinger’s stable of henchmen. Phone taps finally enable Purvis to stage an ambush in the streets outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago during which the outmanned and out-gunned criminal fatally discovered just how long and vengeful the long arm of the law really is. Bale’s career has rarely presented the opportunity to play a character as tightly-wrapped as the relentless Purvis and it’s to the actor’s credit that his obsessive lawman becomes as disturbingly attractive as the flamboyant bank robber he’s determined to destroy.

Mann’s obsessive attention to period detail is everywhere in evidence in this lush recreation of the ‘30’s; from hood ornaments to fedoras, grimy hideouts to elegant hotel rooms, lacey lingerie to weaponry, Mann revisits an era when economic hard times converted outlaws into folk heroes. But for all the authenticity of its content, Enemies elicits neither enthusiasm nor revulsion for its criminal subjects or those who pursue them. Scene by scene, Enemies is a banquet for the eyes, but short rations for the mind; action without reference to motivation ultimately produces little more than off-putting frustration. Mann presents what’s going on brilliantly; but the why begs to be understood, a fact to which Mann seems curiously indifferent. The screenplay, adapted by the director and co-screenwriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biederman from author Bryan Burrough’s book entitled “Public Enemies: America’s Great Crime Wave and the Birth of the F.B.I. 1933-34” fails to provide a point of view from which to judge the events depicted, leaving the audience with a strange sense of detachment when the final credits roll. That type of muted ambiguity may be what Mann intended, but it converts what could have been a great film into what will merely be a commercially successful one.

The Verdict? A near classic crime saga, undone by an annoying  diffidence about its subject matter.

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