Monday, August 10, 2009

A to B Back and Forth Review: Public Enemies, Part I

I'm teaming up with longtime friend, Kozy of April 31st to review films. We're calling the segment "A to B" because I'm Andrew and he's Brad. And he lives in Amsterdam, and I live in Buenos Aires. We generally won't get the new releases when the States do, but hopefully we can either help you reminisce or offer advice before you head out to the video store. So let's get to our fifth review - Public Enemies.


Hey there Kozy!
For the first time in our joint reviewing efforts, we are faced with our own storied past as former Chicago residents. I must admit, that there were many moments in this film that made me think of home. From the old-timey el tracks, to street names that evoke so many memories, to the inevitable climax at the Biograph Theater. I trust we won't let our personal nostalgia factor cloud our objectivity here. I suppose I should also note that you and I have both have a history of general dissatisfaction with bio-pics. So perhaps that will even out the good feelings with the bad.

Throughout this movie, I couldn't help thinking about Michael Mann's Heat, a movie I've long adored, and seen countless times. The overlapping themes are obvious, but the stakes are higher with this movie. John Dillinger was a real guy who lived and died, and did some of the things we saw in this film. I had a lot of preconceptions about the story, as does anyone who's been to the Biograph (where you and I once watched South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut - Dillinger would be proud). But knowing the conclusion did not mean I was without curiosities. Surely the Dillinger character would be interesting, especially the fame he garnered as Public Enemy #1 who was both revered and vilified in his day. But I have to say, this film didn't fulfill those curiosities.
Aside from the pierced ears, a perfect match

They could have taken two approaches: 1) Go for the gusto, ala Heat, putting some visually stunning and visceral bank heists and prison breaks. But each heist was basically the same (punch the security guards in the gut, grab the money and go). And the prison breaks actually took some historic liberties, but still didn't have over-the-top action. 2) Create a compelling character study or allegorical statement about a Robin Hood-esque figure. What made Dillinger tick was never addressed. He flatly says, "I rob banks" much like one would say "I am an accountant." Cursory mentions are given to the fact that many citizens found him to be more of a hero than villain, but the subject was never explored. The lack of either of these approaches left me feeling like there was no clear point to this movie. Did they think about giving it a real purpose?

The above concerns aside, Johnny Depp gave a superb performance. He really owned this movie every step of the way, even though he wasn't given much to work with. The dialogue was completely cliche, and hardly any of his supporting cast seemed to give much effort. For instance, I couldn't tell which of her seventeen accents Marion Cotillard was supposed to be the right one. I also couldn't tell whether Christian Bale mailed in this performance more than the one he gave in Terminator 4, but I suppose that will be the kind of thing scholars debate for decades to come. Every scene with Depp was at least interesting to watch, and every scene without him felt hacky to me.
Acting hard or hardly acting?

I realize what I've written sounds overly negative. I did like this movie somewhat, even if I'm not clear why. I don't think I'll ever want to watch it again, though. But now I'm very curious about how you found it. Knowing your disdain for the bio-pics, I am anticipating venom more than generosity. What's your take?


Hey Reed,

It's been too long since our last movie repartee! It's been months since we shredded on Terminator 4 and since then I've seen Drag Me To Hell, Bruno, The Hangover and The Proposal. All four of those movies I looked forward to seeing more than Public Enemies. There was just something about the PE preview that did not engage me, not that it looked bad, but just that it did not look good. But this Sunday a bunch of my Eurotrash friends decided they really wanted to see a real Chicago movie, with gangsters in it! So who was I to deny them a glimpse into the history of our home town!

Sitting in the cinema pre-show I was bragging of Chicago's beauty, describing how the climatic action filled finale would go down in Lincoln Park. The storied neighborhood that played host to an important part of our early 20's drinking education. Ahhh .. .50 cent beers at Otis', wings at McGee's and hockey puck burgers at Kinkade's. My, what we we were willing to put up with for cheap beer!

As the action played out on screen, I tried hastily to point out 'this and that' about Chicago to friends, but if you didn't know the streets inside and out, this wasn't the kind of movie that was going to make you fall in love with the city. In fact, aside from a few important landmark scenes, this was a movie that may well have been shot in Toronto. That's how small of a role Chicago played in this one. I realize this is not Before Sunrise, but a bit more homage to Chicago would have been a good thing in my book.
They did a great job with the theater scenes.

Similar to the films locational ambiguity is the character ambiguity. Like you said, Dillinger's remark, "I rob banks" passes for character development in Public Enemies. You commented that I am not a fan of the bio-flick, which is of course true. But in many ways Public Enemies did not play like a bio flick, mostly because there was no bio. This was a cat and mouse story, where the cat (stick with me here ...) aka Christian Bale seems sleepy and in general lacking interest in the chase. Maybe if Michael Mann had allowed Bale to use that gravelly Batman voice he has grown so fond of we would have gotten a bit more emotion. Or perhaps the fault lies on Mann himself. By setting the film in the city of Chicago, Bale may have had slid into his sullen, aloof Batman character, for which Christopher Nolan stroked him lovingly. Anyways, back to the analogy ... Depp is of course the mouse with no real motive. Yes his dad beat him and his mom died, but not that he is interested in talking more about. Rather Dillinger is a hedonistic pleasure killing, prostitute fucking, sport robber.

But of course, this movie has strengths as well. In classic Mann style, there are some extended scenes, mostly of action, that are fantastic. This is really Mann's signature style and he plays it beautifully in Public Enemies. You correctly point out that the heists all play similarly, but the getaways certainly did not. The shootout in Sioux Falls, North Dakota, the stance at the Little Bohemia Lodge and of course Depp's long stroll through the police stations "Dillinger Headquarters" were all amazingly tense and Mann at his best.

By the stories end, Dillinger is already a relic. He represents the old and inefficient and needs to be helped to the side. Depp plays at this pitch perfect. For the first time Dillinger breaks all of his own rules, like running with people he does not trust or respect. Dillinger even agrees to the fatalistic notion of 'one last big score' and then moving on with his life. But of course, Dillinger has no exit strategy, or least he won't have one until he sees it first on the silver screen. And this movie obsession humanizes Depp's Dillinger and makes the movie quite watchable.

Ok, that was quite a ramble and I did not even mention Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup or Giovanni Ribisi!!

Nor did I get to Marion Cotillard, whom I have to say is one of the least fetching leading ladies I have seen in a feature film. Aside from being French, I bet Johnny Depp was not thrilled with her selection as Billie Frechette. Do you agree?

Talk to you later!

That's the end of Part I. Tune in Wednesday when we'll conclude our review of Public Enemies wherein Andrew will debate Brad on the relative attractiveness of Oscar winner Marion Cotillard.

Previous A to Bs:
Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler
Star Trek
Terminator 4: Salvation


Emily Singer Mandel said...

Nice review, Andy. Although the absolute and total attractiveness of Johnny Depp would have compelled me to see this even if you said it was the worst movie ev-ah.

Josh said...

I, too, left this one a little disappointed but still glad I saw it in the theaters, where the "Mann moments" Kozy described really shone. But the best part, that you always fail to mention in these reviews, especially when it's a big disappointment, is that a movie down here runs us 7 USD, at most, and we saw this one for less than 5. Gotta love BsAs!

abacus-rex said...

I agree with much of what has been said above but I have a feeling that I liked it less than anyone else. Literally, the only thing I liked about it was Depp. I can't even hang onto the few Chicago moments, that left much to be desired. The action did not keep me at the edge of my seat, there was no character development, no explanation of the Robin Hood origins of Dillinger, and Christian Bale is an asshole. So there you go.