Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Public Enemies

With the exception of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), I’ve never had a desire to see any Michael Mann film more than once. That record continues with “Public Enemies”, one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

Probably the biggest irritation is Mann’s insistence of shooting on high definition video with hand held cameras. I found it very annoying and it really took me out of the movie. I was always aware I was watching a movie - and not even a movie, but a cheap-looking video.

The “Public Enemies” book by Bryan Burroughs was a stunning read, detailing the crime spree that racked Middle America in the early 1930s. For a short period of about 15 months or so, every day saw newspapers accounts and radio reports relating the exploits of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Alvin Karpis and the Barker Gang to a Depression-weary audience. In those early days FBI agents were not allowed to carry guns and it was the easiest thing in the world to rob a bank in Indiana and hightail it to Illinois, where the chase would end at the state line. What was needed was a national police force that would not be put off by state boundary lines.

The book was impossible to put down, describing shoot outs in downtown Chicago and Kansas City that read like something out of the Wild West (only with Tommy guns).

Such sprawling material meant much had to be left out, so Mann focuses on John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, too low key), pursued by G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale at his dullest) on direct orders from J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup).

I was disappointed at how lackadaisical Mann treats the material. For a film with such colorful characters it’s curiously uninvolving. The film meanders from one bank robbery to another, with time spent in between of Dillinger romancing coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

Mann also believes the audience already knows details of the Dillinger saga, so no need to repeat them. When Dillinger breaks out of the jail in Crown Point, Indiana, the audience assumes he was able to smuggle a gun into the jail. He didn’t of course, but used a gun carved out of wood. We’re never told this, and I’m sure there are people watching the movie that do know about the wooden gun story.

More Mann sloppiness occurs when the FBI tracks Dillinger’s gang to the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin. The raid is a disaster, with much ammunition discharged, several civilians accidentally killed and Dillinger and most of his gang escaping.

We see the civilians killed but it doesn’t register for a while that they aren’t gangsters, but innocents. Surely it wouldn’t have hurt to have a quick establishing shot or two showing them as civilians. When they’re killed, we don’t feel anything due to Mann’s incoherent staging.

And I’m sure Mann and his acolytes feel that the hand held camera work makes us feel part of the action. For me, it had the opposite effect. Like I said earlier, the swaying camera and irritating close ups took me out of that sequence the entire time. I was always aware of watching a movie. It didn’t envelop me, but pushed me away.

That Little Bohemia shootout was the inspiration for a similar sequence in the James Cagney film “G-Men” (1935) with FBI agent Cagney on the trail of a vicious hood (Barton MacLane at his nastiest). This is a stunning set piece, with bullets flying all over, sets being destroyed by ricocheting gunfire and a genuine sense of excitement. What does it say about current movies that two action scenes – similar in situation – where the 1935 offering has it all over the 2009 one?

One of the film’s affecting sequences is the montage of close ups of Myrna Loy as Dillinger watches “Manhattan Melodrama” (1934) at the Biograph Theater, the night he is killed. It’s obvious Dillinger is thinking of Billie as he watches Myrna. There’s more emotion in that short scene than in the preceding two hours. It’s not enough to salvage this mess. Mann has made the dullest Dillinger film to date.


Anonymous said...

I thought your review was spot on. After seeing the movie, I checked out some reviews on metacritic and was surprise that some people actually enjoy it. I guess I can see why, but to read some people actually praise the cinematography was just too much. Anyway, great review.

Kevin Deany said...

Re-posted from another comment section:

My friend Tony D and Me Little Timmy think you are very harsh. i thought the movie was a 7 on a 1-10 scale...10 being the best. Johnny deep tried to be deep and complicated. The move with the cameras i thought was to give it a more 1930's style. i liked the shoot out. PUBLIC ENEMY is OK. I liked the HANGOVER better and Valkryie was also better. I will read the BOOK ON THIS ONE thanks. Your review was very Good. TIM O"CALLAGHAN and TONY D.

Kevin Deany said...

Anonymous: Thank you for reading and posting your nice comnents.

Little Timmy: You have fine taste in friends; not so much in movies. HA!

I did enjoy "The Hangover" but thought "Valkyrie" to be a snooze. Glad you enjoyed "Public Enemies", but I was truly disappointed, further evidence that the art of narrative cinema continues to recede ever further into the mists of cinematic time.