Eugene Weekly : Movies : 7.9.09


Dodging Bullets
Michael Mann’s latest epic
by Jason Blair

PUBLIC ENEMIES: Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, based on the book by Bryan Burrough. Cinematography, Dante Spinotti. Music, Elliot Goldenthal. Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum and Lily Taylor. Universal Pictures, 2009. R. 140 minutes.

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

Early in Heat, Michael Mann’s classic crime saga set in Los Angeles, Robert DeNiro explains his philosophy to Al Pacino over coffee. He says, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat.” The line is a sort of codex for understanding all of Mann’s work. From The Last of the Mohicans to Ali and Collateral, Mann’s protagonists, be they heroes or villains, struggle with the discipline required to stay ahead of their pursuers. Judging by Heat, which is a template for his current gangster film Public Enemies, Mann seems to regard romantic relationships as the greatest threat to that discipline. Public Enemies is meant to resemble Heat in Depression-era wardrobe; unfortunately for filmgoers, it more closely resembles cable television in its hit-and-miss screenplay, uneven performances and overall lack of dramatic power. 

For John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), one of the best known gangsters of his era, the danger of taking a love interest couldn’t be more acute. The film opens with Dillinger actually breaking into a prison to help his former associates escape. It’s a fine scene, establishing Mann’s technical ability while laying bare a crucial theme of Public Enemies — man’s ingenuity versus the impersonal institutions that imprison him, such as banks and, well, prisons — and these early moments, shot using both still and handheld cameras, give the film acceleration. Dillinger is a classic Mann disciplinarian, hitting banks here and there, vanishing into safe houses in between and in general living several steps ahead of the law, all while managing to look great doing it. The last thing Dillinger needs is a girlfriend, but that’s exactly what he goes after once he meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, from La Vie en Rose). I couldn’t decide which I disliked more: how aggressively Dillinger pursues Frechette or how easily her reluctance slips under the tread of his charm. Either way, Public Enemies enters the predictable lane from that point, without even having the decency to step on the gas a little.

Pursuing Dillinger is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a man we’re permitted to know nothing about other than he answers directly to the FBI director himself, the venal J. Edgar Hoover (a badly miscast Billy Crudup). In the past, Mann carefully fleshed out the bad guys as well as the good: Think of Jamie Foxx in Collateral or Val Kilmer in Heat. In Public Enemies, Mann’s aperture won’t widen beyond John Dillinger. Depp is a fine actor. Even isolated, as he is here, he can make almost any project respectable. But he and Cotillard sometimes are required to speak flat, uncompelling dialogue, the surest way to uncouple drama from a dramatic film. Even less flattering is the abundance of light here. The exterior shots use a hard, flat light, a look reminiscent of the clean white lighting of a BBC production. I think Mann and his cinematographer were looking to brighten the sordid behaviors of the anti-heroes in Public Enemies. Instead, Depp just looks ashen every time he steps outside.

Still, you’ll enjoy the parade of young-ish actors making small appearances, from Giovanni Ribisi to Leelee Sobieski. If you can, stick around for the final act of Public Enemies, during which Dillinger takes in a movie. Watching Depp observe a Clark Gable mob drama is prickly fun, the film-within-a-film measuring the influence of both Dillinger and Depp himself.