Friday, July 3, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

Public Enemies ****
Directed by:
Michael Mann.
Written By: Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman based on the book by Bryan Burrough.
Starring: Johnny Depp (John Dillinger), Christian Bale (Melvin Purvis), Marion Cotillard (Billie Frechette), Billy Crudup (J. Edgar Hoover), Stephen Graham (Baby Face Nelson), Giovanni Ribisi (Alvin Karpis), James Russo (Walter Dietrich), Jason Clarke (John 'Red' Hamilton), Stephen Dorff (Homer Van Meter), Branka Katic (Anna Sage), Rory Cochrane (Agent Carter Baum), Bill Camp (Frank Nitti), John Ortiz (Phil D'Andrea), Richard Short (Agent Sam Cowley), Lili Taylor (Sheriff Lillian Holley), Leelee Sobieski (Polly Hamilton), Channing Tatum (Pretty Boy Floyd).

No one makes action movies quite like Michael Mann does. Although he is probably better at directing action than any other director working right now, his films always concentrate more on plot, character and atmosphere than he does on the action. In Public Enemies, his epic movie about bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the manhunt for him in the 1930s led my Melvin Pervis (Christian Bale), he has many action sequences that are expertly choreographed, photographed and edited, but we walk out of the theater talking about the characters, not just the action. The action is quick and violent - when someone in this movie gets shot, there is blood, and it feels like it hurts. But the action is just a small, though brilliant element, of this movie.

The movie opens as Dillinger has just got out of jail after serving 9 years for an armed robbery of a grocery store. But Dillinger does not stay out of jail for long - he daringly goes back in and breaks out his friends - real bank robbers - and together they will start their crime spree. Dillinger quickly becomes a household name in the great depression. Hardly a Robin Hood - he doesn’t give money to the poor after stealing from the rich - people still like him. He is polite, he doesn’t get violent unless he has to, and he refuses to steal money from the bank patrons. He isn’t after their money, he wants the bank’s money.

Dillinger, and bank robbers like him, present an opportunity for J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), head of the Bureau of Investigation. The problem is that all the bank robbers have to do is cross state lines, and the police cannot chase them. Hoover wants to set up a Federal police force to catch these criminals, and wants them to have different image for his men - he wants clean cut, respectable young men. When Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) kills Pretty Boy Floyd, he becomes a national figure, and so Hoover promotes him, and puts him in charge of catching Dillinger.

Much like Mann’s earlier film Heat, where Robert DeNiro played a bank robber and Al Pacino was the cop chasing him, Public Enemies essentially looks at the two sides of the investigation - Dillinger staying one step ahead of the police, and Purvis trying to catch up. Also like that film, the two main figures in the film only have one conversation in the film. After Dillinger is arrested (he will escape again), Purvis comes to visit him. The showdown between the two men is one of the best scenes in the film.

But the central relationship in the film, the one that makes Public Enemies a great film and the one we remember, is between Dillinger and his girl Billie Frenchette (Marion Cotillard). I was not as big a fan of Cotillard’s Oscar winning performance in La Vie En Rose, but she is sensational in this film. She has the most gorgeous eyes of anyone on the planet, and Mann makes great use of them in her multiple close-ups. Often her performances hinges on slight changes in her eyes, that convey more genuine emotion than any amount of dialogue would. Depp and Cotillard have terrific chemistry together right from their opening scene, where he picks her up in a bar. She is the emotional heartbeat of the film, and she certainly deserves another Oscar nomination for the film at least.

Mann is one of the best directors working right now, and he shows us why in this film. Not only does he draw great performances from his leads, he fills the supporting cast with great actors - Giovanni Ribisi, James Russo, Brank Katvic, John Ortiz, Rory Cochrane and Leelee Sobieski are just a few. I loved Crudup as Hoover, who plays him as slightly effemenite, as well as bitter and spiteful, hunting at the man that he would become. And Stephen Grahmm is great as crazy Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger’s opposite, who is quick tempered, and opens fire at the slightest provocation. But the visual look is also tremendous. Working with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann avoids the usual clich├ęd sepia tone of depression era films, and instead goes for a crisper cleaner look, shot mostly in shades of grey. So while this movie is certainly an homage to the old Warner Brothers gangster movies, as well as later films like Bonnie and Clyde, it is not beholden to them. It has a look and feel all of its own. While the camera moves in this film almost as much as it does in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Mann actually knows what he’s doing, something that I’m not sure Michael Bay did. The camera work, not to mention the great production design by Nathan Crowley, and a wonderful score by Elliot Goldenthal, all combine to make this one of the great technical achievements of the year.

Public Enemies is not quite the rip roaring action movie that I think some audiences will be expecting. While it is certainly true that the movie spends more time on character than on action, when the action sequences are wonderful. Mann knows that one of the most important things about action sequences is to orient the audience to ensure they know what precisely is going on. Unlike some many directors who mistake shaky camera work and rapid fire editing for exciting filmmaking, Mann concentrates more on movement within the frame. No one does it better than Mann does, and Public Enemies is one his best films, and one of the best films of the year so far.

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