11 July 2009

Public Enemies

Michael Mann directs this gangster-era throwback with his trademarked style. He also makes good use of his star power which is supplied in great volume by Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.

URBAN: Public Enemies was on my list as one of the films that I was most looking forward to this summer and I have to say that this is one that didn't disappoint-however-it doesn't overwhelm either.

In all of his films-Michael Mann, most well known for his work on the Miami Vice television series, has created a distinct cinematic signature. Lots of shots of guys riding in boats with the wind blowing through their hair. Lots of quick shots of dark interiors, serious people giving each other serious, but telling looks. And lots and lots of scenes shot at night that combine both of the above against neon lights. This style made Collateral a really cool and underrated film. This same combination taken to the extreme made a really cool looking but unintelligible story on the film version of Miami Vice. This same style really doesn't translate well to the 1930's.

For one thing, most of the action takes place in the bleakest parts of Indiana or in the wilds of Wisconsin. Not exactly the cool neon/noir places that take advantage of Mann's style. Prohibition Chicago is the focal point of the film, but the only scenes that really play up the glitz are the final scenes near the movie theater.

Johnny Depp has a lot of charisma, playing John Dillinger pretty straight. It was an odd choice, for an actor who has become famous for putting outrageous spins on the characters that he plays. He makes it work by focusing on the parts of Dillinger that appeal to the audience (moviegoers and bank goers alike). He does so by playing all the time as Dillinger supposedly was in public-image conscious and highly professional. Christian Bale comes across as a convincing lawman who not only wants to succeed, but also to do so in the right way. In other reviews, I have read that some were impressed by Billy Crudup's sendup of Jay Edgar Hoover, and his radio ready voice from the era. I felt that it was forced and seemed out of place considering that most of his speeches were with only one listener or while talking on the phone.

In my summer preview I mentioned that I loved films like this, where the ending is never in doubt, because it allows the filmmaker and the viewer to focus on the telling of the story, rather than the story itself. This film, in its second half, does an impressive job of tightening the moral framework. From here, Dillinger is not only the smooth criminal, but also clearly devoted to his girlfriend and keeping his promises. At the same time, it is apparent that his attention and devotion primarily cause pain in the lives of those with whom he associates. This apparent contradiction comes alive for the viewer as well when the FBI declares its "war on crime". Clearly, the public (and moviegoers) would like to end crime, but what lengths would we be willing to go to eradicate it? In the film, the attention and increased devotion of law enforcement eventually completes its goal of catching the public enemies. This same attention and devotion lead to many accidental deaths and interrogation techniques that are difficult to accept. It forces one to ask the question of whether or not the achievement of the goal is worth it.

Director Mann has created an interesting and entertaining film that is built from a solid foundation of epic characters and great actors. His film takes on serious ethical concerns as well as asking questions regarding the nature of fame in this country. He does all of this while maintaining his very individual signature. Unfortunately, the film does not do an excellent job of combining these two elements. Ultimately, I think that the film does a great job of telling the story and grabbing the attention of viewers, but fails in that its style would be best fitted in a different time,,, or at least a different place during that time. The quick moving camera, suffused with multiple shots and quite a bit of hand-held work would be much better fitted to flashy documentary or a crime/heist film with an ensemble cast. The style and substance do not match. The result is that the viewer is left wanting more. It feels like something is missing. This style of filming is made for individuals walking through dark clubs, members of a team getting ready to make the move they have been planning the whole movie, fight off a last attack. None of these things happen. Instead, these characters face down the effects of their actions and the hero of the film.... he dies ignominiously, not in a hail of gunfire breaking out of prison, but by being shot in the head as he leaves the cinema.

URBAN: Recommended

No comments:

Post a Comment