Wednesday, July 01, 2009
“John Dillinger was shot dead behind that theater (points at the Biograph Theater) in a hail of FBI gunfire. You know who tipped him off? His fuckin’ girlfriend! (shrugs) He just wanted to go to the movies.” - Rob Gordon (John Cusack) from HIGH FIDELTY (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2000)
PUBLIC ENEMIES (Dir. Michael Mann, 2009)
At a recent revival showing of THE UNTOUCHABLES (part of a Robert De Niro double feature) the first shots showing the legs of Armani suited men storming up marble stairs made me think they accidentally started THE UNTOUCHABLES a few reels too soon.
Of course, what I was actually seeing was the trailer for a new fangled ‘30s gangster movie with Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as his FBI chief pursuer. On first glance it looked remarkably like Brian De Palma’s Capone era classic. Upon closer inspection, well, the looks linger but this time the tale is told from the bad guys point of view.
“I'm John Dillinger. I rob banks.” Depp smoothly parlays his M.O. to a new romantic prospect - a coat check girl played by Marion Cotillard (fresh from her Oscar winning turn as Edith Piaf in LA VIE EN ROSE). “Why did you tell me that?” She asks, intrigued, but she’ll soon learn that Depp’s Dillinger is forthright about everything. Despite being a bank robber on the run from the feds with his picture in the papers and 30 feet high in the newsreels, he comes off as a ‘man about town,’ always on the make with the movie star glow that Depp couldn’t shake off if he tried.
So why is he so hard to catch? The only argument the film seems to offer is that it's because he is just as elusively slippery as a Warner Brothers cartoon character from the same period. When he is caught it is not for long as we are witness to more than one prison breakout sequence.
Over a decade ago, Mann made one of the definitive epic crime dramas - HEAT, but this sadly can't hold a candle to that masterpiece. While HEAT bristled with tension, PUBLIC ENEMIES goes through the motions with gunfights lacking in electricity and multiple dialogue driven scenes that just sit there. Depp is confident and slick, Bale is determined and humorless; yet beyond that there’s not much to their personas.
Bale is one of the most engaging actors working today but since BATMAN BEGINS it seems like he’s being inserted right and left into potential blockbusters like some kind of celebrity product placement; he’s a cowboy, a Vietnam soldier, he’s Dylan, he’s the new John Connor, he was even almost President George W. Bush in W.! Bale's character is solid, as is Depp's, but there are no surprises present in their sparring standoffs.
Still, PUBLIC ENEMIES is a sturdy well made movie with a number of striking set-pieces, so this isn’t a complete pan. A major saving grace is its great supporting cast including Billy Crudup (almost unrecognizable as J. Edgar Hoover), Stephen Dorff, James Russo, Lili Taylor, and Channing Tatum as Baby Face Nelson. That there’s no fault from any member of the supporting players shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. Also there are a few definite sparks between Coittard and Depp which helps since it's a fairly unfleshed out romance.
Like Capone’s fate in THE UNTOUCHABLES, and for that matter many other movies based on true crime, we know how this will end for Dillinger but at 2 hours and 20 minutes this takes its sweet time getting there. However, once you get to the climax it’s the most stirring part of the film. As Cusack noted in the quote at the top of this review, Dillinger was killed after taking in a movie at the historic Biograph Theater.
Mann deftly illustrates, in the only section in which the glacial pace works, the odd peace Dillinger carried himself with. We see shots from the last film he saw, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, with images of Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy pouring off the screen.
In the shadows deals are being made and fates are being sealed, but as Depp and the audience, both on screen and off, are being bathed in the white light coming from the projector, art and life are sitting comfortably side by side taking a break from mocking one another. It won't last long though...