Monday, October 4, 2010

Public Enemies

Homer Van Meter. Baby Face Nelson. Pretty Boy Floyd. John Dillinger. These are the "public enemies" in director Michael Mann's 2009 film of the same name. All were running wild across the American Midwest in the 1930s, robbing banks and sometimes even killing folks. Breaking out of prisons, too. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, one who never apprehended a criminal himself as we learn early on in this movie, accelerates straight-arrow, laser focused agent Melvin Purvis to chief investigator to bring down Dillinger, and this will be the focus of the story.

The task proves formidable. Even with Purvis' physical and intellectual skills, his men will be hoodwinked and even killed easily by Nelson et al. It becomes apparent that more experienced lawmen are necessary. One of them is expert Texan Charles Winstead. This guy knows how to catch a criminal, alive or dead.

In fact, the devil-may-care John Dillinger is eventually caught in Arizona, but will engineer a jailbreak, armed only with a toy gun. His destination (and the reason for it) will be his undoing: to see his girlfriend, Billie Frechette. Another otherwise unstoppable force, brought down by love. Dillinger will meet his end outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago after taking in a Clark Gable gangster flick.

PUBLIC ENEMIES is certainly not the first piece of celluoid (er, HD video) to reimagine the exploits of Dillinger. DILLINGER and THE LADY IN RED are but 2 other contemporary stabs at his colorful life. This gangster was stylish, celebrity conscious, seductive. Natural material for dramatization. Johnny Depp's take on him is pretty solid. As with Christian Bale, who portrays Purvis, Depp did some extensive research on the character. He spoke with folks who knew the man, his mannerisms. Many of the events in Mann's film are based on fact, excepting Purvis' jailhouse visit to Dillinger, an interesting tête-à-tête that, while somewhat interesting, doesn't quite achieve a weight like that of DeNiro and Pacino's diner scene in Mann's HEAT.

As with other viewers, I saw many parallels with the director's 1995 drama. I described Dillinger's fatal mistake, returning to see his girlfriend (Marian Cottilard). DeNiro makes a fatal mistake as well towards the climax of HEAT, but with the motive of revenge, a deadly flaw. Can love also be considered a flaw? Perhaps Dillinger should've adopted DeNiro's mantra of being able to abandon anything within 30 seconds. But he can't quite. He's a very different bird, an almost supernatural chap who is keenly aware of his short life span.

And supernatural he seems to be; several scenes in PUBLIC ENEMIES show him walking about in plain view, yet unacknowledged by cops, men on the street. One scene near the end shows him walking right into the office where Purvis and his team have set up their HQ. Dillinger even asks some office staff about a baseball score. Does he want to be caught? Or is it an unchecked ego?

HEAT was a spectacular neo-classic; PUBLIC ENEMIES is a game but ultimately, strangely unsatisfying brew. The trademark Mann stylistics are there: the gunfire ballets and barrages, the close-ups, the interesting sounds, even the way outdoor light spills upon indoor linens. Real minutiae at times. I read that Mann once sent prop masters scrambling to find very specific hangers that made a paticular sound when pushed together (remember when DeNiro pushes Ashley Judd against them?) for HEAT. For MIAMI VICE (the 2006 film) he had crew members meticulously arrange the way rope hung from a flatbed truck in the background of a scene to suit his vision. Sometimes, crews get fed up with such perfectionism and form a mutiny, like they reportedly did during the filming of LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Is all the fuss worth it? Arguably, but for PUBLIC ENEMIES the flash, while arresting as always, does not make up for a lack of dramatic substance.

Who were these men? We see them wrapped in 21st century sleight of hand, and never clearly at that. The screenplay (based on Bryan Burrough's book "Public Enemeies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34") gives us morsels but not enough meat. Mann matches that with his dazzling direction, always jumping around and for the best angle, the most stylish lens. For his fans (myself among them), there is much to appreciate. But the reasons to care, to have a stake in this umpteenth retelling of a bloody chapter in American history, did not come through strongly. One can only be kept at arm's length for so long before writing the movie off as merely an artistic exercise.

Another earlier Mann film PUBLIC ENEMIES reminded me of was THIEF, from 1980. In it, Frank (James Caan) plays a master safecracker who has one goal in his life: survival. Dillinger has/had much the same agenda. Too bad the films themselves don't. By the time we reach Frank's climax, we are emotionally drained; we've spent 2 hours getting inside his head. With Dillinger, I just felt like I had watched a 2 hour trailer.

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