The gangster movie ruled Depression-era cinema — and that might be cause for concern about our present economic difficulties should the genre make a comeback. But after seeing Michael Mann's Public Enemies, I don't think we need to worry for now. Perfunctory, uninspired, and largely pointless, it bears little resemblance to the director's intense and masterful Heat. And it's unlikely to spawn many imitators.
|Public Enemies | Directed by Michael Mann | Written by Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, and Ann Biderman | Based on the book by Bryan Burrough | with Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale, and Billy Crudup | Universal Pictures | 140 minutes|
Perhaps gangsters prevailed on the screen in the '30s because they were rampaging in real life. Newspapers and the popular imagination inflated these louts into folk heroes, successors to those Wild West desperadoes who went after the financial institutions that exploited the downtrodden common man. Said gangsters included John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, who doesn't look much like the other JD despite the bad haircut), a bank-robbing Indiana farm boy with a knack for breaking out of prison, and for disarming prosecuting attorneys with his aw-shucks charm. (Depp's similarity to George W. Bush in this regard has been noted.)
Not to be outdone on the PR front, Justice Department Bureau of Investigation (yet to become the FBI) honcho J. Edgar Hoover (an unrecognizable Billy Crudup, whose performance as the epicene martinet might be the best thing in the movie) seeks to elevate his fledgling organization to the big time by extending his jurisdiction and chasing down flamboyant culprits like Dillinger. He assigns golden boy Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, hovering somewhere between Robert Duvall and Robert Stack) to the case, and the bullets and the clichés fly.
Mann seems undecided about what he wants Enemies to accomplish, so he tries a little bit of everything, and the result is a collection of listless sequences (shot in dim, sepia-tone chiaroscuro illuminated by the occasional muzzle flash) that reminded me of sequences in other, mostly better, movies. The media-image and celebrity-promotion theme — which might have been the most productive direction for Public Enemies to follow — derives from Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde. So does a fitfully effective nighttime shoot-out at a motel. Although the similar incidents in both movies are based on fact, you can't help noticing how much more exciting Penn's version is.
Likewise the romance — and I'm not referring to the one between Purvis and Hoover (unrequited, it seems, for J. Edgar), which Mann ignores. I'm referring to Dillinger's folie à deux with Billie Frechette (a fine Marion Cotillard), which devolves into lines like "Eventually they will kill you and I don't want to be there when they do!" And "They'll never catch me!"
Well, that kind of dialogue worked back in the '30s, in movies like Manhattan Melodrama, which Dillinger takes in at Chicago's Biograph Theatre the night he's killed. Here Mann fills the screen with the glowing, monochrome image of Clark Gable's tough guy in that film, then cuts back to a close-up of Depp's Dillinger as he studies the face, perhaps seeking to emulate it. The scene recalls Jean-Paul Belmondo's one-word homage to Humphrey Bogart in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, but the tone is unclear. Mann doesn't recapture the cornball innocence of the old movie, and neither does he evoke any sense of irony or tragedy at its loss.