Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Enemies

I don't think there is a better way to write a review of Public Enemies than while listening to "Ten Million Slaves" by Otis Taylor. This song was featured (twice, if my count is correct) in Michael Mann's latest film, and is just one of the many reasons why the soundtrack contributes wildly to the film's success.

Public Enemies
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard

[Let it be known (if it isn't already) that Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors. While the members of that category find themselves on a very short list, Mann's inclusion is even more exclusive because he earned his way on the list even though I haven't seen all of his films - in fact, I haven't even seen a majority of them. As of this posting, I've seen The Last of the Mohicans (which I honestly can barely remember because my viewing was so long ago), The Insider, Heat, Miami Vice, Collateral (one of my absolute favorite movies, period), and now obviously his most recent film.]

Public Enemies is a powerhouse of a movie in the complete opposite way Transformers 2 could share the same description. Characterization, atmosphere, cinematography, and realism are all emphasised in Mann's portrayal of the fall of John Dillinger, and the audience is rewarded with a much more coherent, intelligent, and praise-worthy film than the aforementioned $400 million dollar blockbuster. The only other thing the two movies could share is a rather lengthy running time that would have arguably served both better had they each lost thirty minutes off their final cut.

The acting was sensational by everyone involved. I could not find a weak link among the actors, which is so rare that I can't actually remember another movie where this is the case. Depp was fantastic as bank robber John Dillinger- I was expecting a solid performance from him, but he was incredibly good in this one, a definite high note to an already-stellar career that is sure to see more brilliant performances in the years to come. I'm guessing he'll receive a Best Actor nomination for his work here. Christian Bale ejected himself from the lingering bile that was Terminator Salvation with his first movie since The Prestige where he doesn't growl (not even once!). As Agent Melvin Purvis, the man responsible for bringing Dillinger's reign of robbing terror to an end, Bale adopted a slight accent which further shows off his believability and range as an actor. I expect a lot of critics might take issue with his performance over anyone else's (as they did with DiCaprio's accent from 2006's Blood Diamond), but I thought he was great. Marion Cotillard proved that she is more than capable of handling larger roles in American film as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's lover. Cotillard is a French actress who has only starred in a handful of films on this side of the ocean (one of them being another personal favorite, 2003's Big Fish), but she was really solid here and I have complete confidence she'll be able to carry her weight in Chris Nolan's next film, Inception.

The supporting actors in Public Enemies are so varied, so numerous, and, sadly, so unimportant that a few of them didn't get enough screen time for me to even recognize them. Billy Crudup (Watchmen, the underrated Dedication) was the standout for me, since I dig that guy a lot and he had the largest of the supporting roles. Leelee Sobieski (Deep Impact, The Wicker Man remake), Emilie De Ravin (Brick, Claire from LOST), and Giovanni Ribisi (Gone in 60 Seconds remake) were featured in "blink and you'll miss them" roles, and Channing Tatum (Fighting, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra) and Stephen Dorff (Blade) didn't even register with me because their appearances were so brief. However, all parties turned in worthwhile performances and took their egos out of the way to allow Depp to shine; as the marketing points out, this is his film and no one else's.

The set design was impeccable and the attention to detail was inspiring. Production took place on many of the actual sites where famous shootouts and robberies occurred in real life, sometimes even filming events on the same date they took place 76 years ago. The film was shot mainly in Wisconsin due to the high amount of preserved architecture from the time period, and that kind of legitimacy was definitely appreciated by this viewer. Fun fact: production designer Nathan Crowley also worked on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Prestige.

Michael Mann is known for shooting his past few films digitally, opting for the use of high definition video instead of film. This has worked well for his previous efforts (especially Collateral), but many wondered how this decision would affect the outcome of Public Enemies, a period piece. Personally, I saw the film on a digital projector and it looked out-of-this-world good. There were a few shots (a shot of a car from behind driving through the road with trees lining both sides, some of the horse race wide shots) where I nearly thought I was in an IMAX theater because the quality was so good. In other words, I think the choice to go with video over film did nothing to hinder my appreciation for the movie as a whole. Dante Spinotti, Mann's frequent cinematographer collaborator, did award-worthy work behind the camera, switching masterfully between hand-held shots and constantly moving tracking shots to mirror the urgency with which Dillinger lived his life. If you're looking into becoming a cinematographer or a director of photography, this film seems like required viewing.

The solid writing can't be overlooked. Crisp dialogue from Dillinger makes him a likeable bad guy and allows the audience to get into the mind of the man who held America's banks hostage and was loved by the public for it. (I really dug how he mentioned the importance of the public's perception of him - he definitely had the basics of public relations mastered.) Purvis' story parallels Dillinger's (though not to the excessive extent of American Gangster), and their screen time shared together is exciting to watch. The crime drama elements that Mann captures so well are all there, and the writing is believable enough that it doesn't ever make you question how the characters get from one point to the next. Writing like that is hard to accomplish and shouldn't be taken for granted. There's a great mix of drama and action on display - a certain forest shootout could go down as one of my favorite gun battles of the past few years. Another fun fact: Mann co-wrote the script with the writer of Primal Fear.

The movie is based on book, which is based on a true story - so I'm not going to run through the whole plot with you. With the Academy's recent announcement that there will be 10 Best Picture nominations for the next ceremony instead of the traditional five, I believe Public Enemies has a very good shot at scoring a nomination. Does having 10 nominees cheapen the effect of winning Best Picture? Sure. But Public Enemies is a great movie and, though a little long, is one that can be enjoyed by anyone with the brain capacity willing to tackle a story that doesn't involve giant robots smashing each other. Until next time...


Ben Pearson said...

Blast - I forgot to mention something else.

I don't know if I just missed it or what, but I kept waiting for the title card to pop up 20 minutes in like "The Departed." Did anyone else notice it at all? I remember the 1933 and the text right after that, but I must have missed the title if it appeared.

Joey Joe said...

i have to agree with you on the length of the movie. the end dragged on and i would have liked it if they ended it with him alive and capped it with text of his actual demise.

i thought the shootout scenes were uninspired and at points there was no dialogue during these battles.

also, did everyone have to be wearing a fedora...all the time? combine that with several dark settings and you have the "Transformers" blending quagmire you talked about in that review.

lastly, would you have rather seen bale as dillinger and depp as the fed?

Ben Pearson said...

Very true about the "'Transformers' blending quagmire" replicated in Public Enemies, although not to such a headache-inducing level in this one.

Bale as Dillinger, Depp as Purvis? I honestly think I like it the way it is - because the role of Dillinger is closer to Depp's actual level of celebrity right now. There's a duality between the persona of Depp as an actor and Dillinger's persona that can't be ignored; I dare say the lines were blurred sometimes (the Clark Gable stare-down at the end).

Bale just doesn't have the same selling power that Depp does - even though he's got the "geek vote" with Batman, Equilibrium, Reign of Fire, etc.

Branzadamus said...

There were only 2 bank robberies in the whole movie? But plenty of god-foresaken "I love you and I wanna take that ride with you." scenes. I agree, with Joe. Those shootout scenes with no dialogue, multiple face shots and shakey camera work hindered the darn thing.

Bale was a bad-ass.