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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

REVIEW - "Public Enemeis" (2009)

Michael Mann is one of those peculiar filmmakers who, without question, have a long list of great looking movies. On that list reside classics like “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” He also directed one of my all time favorite films, “Collateral,” spinning Tom Cruise in to one of his greatest roles to date. He’s known for balancing style and substance so well that one can’t work without the other. “Public Enemies” epitomizes Mann’s strengths in a period piece, powerhouse that is proportioned to the grandeur of its characters.

Johnny Depp plays real life folk hero, and public enemy, John Dillinger. His dangerous lifestyle of bank robbing leads agent Melvin Purvis, (Christian Bale) promoted by J. Edgar Hoover, (Billy Crudup) to hunt him down with extreme force. When changing times back Dillinger in to a corner, he makes a last ditch effort to end his crime spree and evade his enemies.

The storyline is filled to the rim Dillinger’s bad-boy, pseudo-romance, his advancements in bank robbing and Purvis’s confident visage battling the crime Dillinger associates with. It’s intriguing enough of a storyline, but, quite frankly, the film could have had no plot and I would have been perfectly fine with Depp, Bale and Crudup reciting nonsense in their spiffy pinstriped jackets. There’s something to be said about actors so good you don’t want the movie to end simply because they’re fun to watch.

Depp is expectedly comfortable in the shoes of John Dillinger. He plays the character with an arrogant swagger only matched by the chiseled smirk on his face every time something excites him. Bale is shockingly surreal in his role as Melvin Purvis. A man of few words, Bale plays the strong and silent type with a gentleman inspired confidence that sets him far apart from Batman. Sporting an accurate, but not over bloated accent, Bale has delivered one his absolute finest performances. Ah, but the real surprise comes from Billy Crudup. Having to squint to realize it was the once Russell Hammond, (“Almost Famous”) Crudup’s embodiment of J. Edgar Hoover is hands down the height of his career. If he does not, at the very least, receive a supporting actor nomination at the Oscars, it further confirms my negative outlook on the has-been Academy.

As if these fine actors weren’t enough to push the movie to its end, Dillinger’s character slings the audience in a direction of forbidden excitement. Because of the audience’s love for Dillinger, but the acknowledgment that he is cinematically glorified, it never occurred to me that Purvis was a villain. Far from it. Dillinger and Purvis are the top men of different worlds. One upholds unrestrained freedom, and the other unrestrained justice. A standout scene in the film is when Purvis and Dillinger meet in a jail cell. The silent Purvis stares down the arrogant Dillinger, but the tension isn’t in their words. Depp and Bale have tapped in to a talent so great that even their competing glares exude character acting no other performer can pull off. It is here that I realized I didn’t want either character to fail, but as with most cinematic enemies, I knew one must go down.

The dramatic extremes of watching Dillinger and Purvis leads, inevitably, to sleek, 1930s chase scenes and shoot outs. While the docudrama style of these shootouts might remove the audience from the film’s reality, reminding them subtly of bad soap operas, it at least maintains a duty of keeping the characters and sets involved beyond the simple pleasures of an action sequence. For example, the chase sequence following Purvis’s shootout with the more vile ‘public enemies’ (one of my favorite scenes) looks more like an art house film than an action piece. Mann has shot this film with the love for digital cinema, pitting audiences against visceral colors and images instead of an onslaught of catered CGI.

Although Mann’s “Public Enemies” is an unapologetic work of fiction adapted from history, its glorified characters are at least believable in their 1930s home. At the film’s climax, Dillinger sits with his incomparable smirk at the conclusion of “Manhatten Melowdrama,” staring Clark Gable. Inspired by another character’s mindset, he marches outside with a legendary glare that insinuates a certain immortality about John Dillinger. “Public Enemies” is not an absolute truth, but it is likely. As such, Michael Mann has delivered the legend, and that, regardless of truth, is what we go to the movies for.

**** out of ****

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