Tommy Gun, you ain't happy less you got one...
There is a moment in almost every Michael Mann film where the camera lingers just over the shoulder of one of our protagonists, filling the screen with the back of their head and maybe a bit of ear as it follows Mann's clockwork men mechanically pursuing their work. The camera follows them as if it is the unseen and largely unquantifiable force or weight driving them. This signature shot nicely sums up Mann's body of work: the thoroughly detailed and somewhat detached procedural of men at work and the existential drift that moves them on either side of the thin line between law and crime. This has produced results both sublime--The Insider--and ludicrously awful---Miami Vice--so it was with some trepidation that I approached his latest, Public Enemies, an ambitious, but flawed epic of the Golden Age of American crime.
Shot all in HD Cam, Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti have created a movie that looks fantastic, as the light-weight of this new technology allows for all those unseen forces to become even more fluid and omnipresent, creating a hyper-real canvas of extreme close-ups and a muted palette of browns and blacks that is both ugly and gorgeous, a fitting look for the film's depression era setting. Of course, it is really Johnny Depp's movie, whose performance as John Dillinger eclipses almost everything else in its orbit, and remains the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The movie is shot with technical brilliance, but it is really only Depp that manages to captivate or engage. The film is littered with a who's who of character actors who crop up again and again without much to do or say. You have Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Graham, Leelee Sobieski, That Dude from Lord of the Rings, Shawn Hatosy, Stephen Lang, Rory Cochrane, Billy Crudup, Lili Taylor, Channing Tatum, Stephen Dorff, Jason Clarke, and probably a dozen other people you may remember from such films and tv shows as ____. They're all quite good, they just don't really matter, drifting in and out of the movie or being gunned down without much rhyme or reason. Christian Bale is mostly a zero as the straight-laced G-man who pursues Dillinger. However, I should give Marion Cotillard her props as a non-prostitute, female in this sausage party of a movie. She does great work in a role that I nonetheless have the sneaking suspicion was thrown in to attract skeptical girlfriends on a Friday night.
The problem with Public Enemies is that much like the utterly listless American Gangster, it wants so badly to be the next great American crime epic, the next Bonnie & Clyde, the next Goodfellas, or even the next Heat for that matter. It aspires to be a grand statement on crime, celebrity, and the country that worships them, but it lacks any coherent idea of what it really wants to say. To be sure, it's much better than American Gangster, but watching Public Enemies basically left me with two thoughts. The first being that even when compared with hardcore sociopaths like Baby Face Nelson and Frank Nitti, the FBI--or in this era, just the "BI"--are far more evil, as they will gladly torture, kill, or destroy anything that gets in the way of expanding the powers of a small group of unelected, pseudo-fascists, or as Crudup's J. Edgar says, "a modern law enforcement agency made up of the best sort of young men," you know, WASPs without conscience. The second thought the film left me pondering was, why on Earth did we ever stop using Tommy guns? Because, man they look like they get the job done.
Ultimately, when taken as a whole, Public Enemies is a film not quite as good as its best moments. However, its best moments are really quite good. The bank heists, jail breaks, and one amazing shoot-out with the feds in the Wisconsin woods are thrilling and might be worth the price of admission, but I found that the movie was most inspired in its little throwaway moments, including one scene near the end where Depp asks a group of men the score to a baseball game, I'll spare you the set up, but it actually is worth the ticket price. There are also two really great meta-moment, scenes of Depp/Dillinger watching and seeing himself in the movies. It is here where the movie breaks out of itself and shows glimpses of the greatness it aspires to, although fans of history will already know how one of those trips to the movies ended.
Audience Participation Bonus -- Oh Dear Readers, like Dillinger--who (spoiler alert!) gets shot in the face after taking in Manhattan Melodrama--my own movie theater experience was so precious I just have to share. First there were the trailers, the two that stick out was some truly awful Vaughn, Bateman, Favreau vehicle called Couples Retreat full of wacky hijinks and ribald humor which the audience hooted and guffawed throughout. The other gem came in the form of a bit of shameless Oscar-bait called Brothers, or if I had been involved would have been called "Bro-Code." Its with Jake Gyllenhaal who plays the brother-in-law of tender war-widow Natalie Portman, who time and again never fails the coveted spot of "most overrated actress alive." There are cute children who talk frankly about their dead dad, while big surprise, Jake "takes care" of his brother's family by smoking weed with and fucking his widow better than his dumb-ass jarhead bro ever could. But wait! Bro isn't really dead! Just MIA, and a fried, shell-shocked Tobey Maguire shows up to complicate things a bit after finding out he was betrayed by some soft-ass civie, while he was bravely serving God and Country and protecting our freedoms. This culminates with a classic bit of domestic disturbance as a screaming, gun-wielding Tobey confronts the police on the front yard of his broken home, while Jake screams "shoot me! shoot me!" It's the romantic comedy of the year, oh, how I laughed.
And the audience, those other people you must share your time, space, and movie-going experience with, did not disappoint. You had one bird in back of me who felt compelled to share such MST3K worthy quips as "OMG"--not "Oh my God", but the actual vocalization of a text she was thinking about sending--and of Johnny Depp, "I like him," this continued throughout. Her feelings for Johnny was refuted later, by the chap who let us know, as he walked out the theater early, that he liked Depp better in Pirates of Carribean. There were other more thoughtful critiques ("Baby Face is for real") but my personal favorite was the guy in the row in front of us, who was one of probably two people who sparked up some weed in the theater. As we were leaving, Your Leader and his comrades wondered why we didn't think of something that brilliantly ballsy, only to be confronted with two members of the NYPD waiting patiently by the concessions. As we waited in front of the theater, we saw these flatfoot law-men leave without their man, who probably made it across state lines in time.