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Public Enemies

dir: Michael Mann
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John Dillinger is not really one of those names that lights up the night sky or the imagination, at least anywhere apart from the US. I’m sure he’s Robin Hood and Ayn Rand all rolled into one in the States, but to the rest of the world, if we know anything about him, it’s that he was alive at some point in the past, and is now dead.

And in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “If he’s so smart, why is he dead?”

Well, Johnny Depp, the dapper gent himself, and Michael Mann, the cop and crim obsessed-director, thought it was time to resurrect the tale of the Depression era populist ‘hero’, and his subsequent demise. Mann puts his particularly Mannish spin on things by emphasising the cool professionalism with which Dillinger and his crew conducted themselves. And, of course, the professionalism of Dillinger’s main opponents, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), also have to act as a parallel counterbalance.

Of course, all of this occurs independent of, and, in most cases, in direct contradiction to the established history of these events.

But, let’s be serious about this, does it really matter? Do I really care that the real Melvin Purvis was nowhere near Dillinger when he kicked the bucket, or that they never met in reality in order to have one of those “we’re so similar despite being on opposite sides of the law, I could almost respect you, but I’ll kill you given half a chance” moments that Mann has loved having in his films since Heat?

No, I don’t. I don’t want this to be a documentary. I couldn’t care less about the facts regarding Dillinger’s life previous to watching this flick, and I care even less now. I wanted to be entertained. And I was, for a good long while. The problem is that this flick, for no discernible reason, goes for two and a half long hours. I can honestly and accurately say that I was entertained for its first 90 minutes. I can’t say that about the rest of it.

The flick pulls a neat trick over on the audience initially. It makes the life of Dillinger and his cohorts seem exciting and interesting, at first. It’s all hookers and cocaine when things are going right. It could be the first time this idea has been represented in film, I’m not sure. These hardcore crims are nasty pieces of work, even back in the 30s, way before a form of music existed which would have allowed them to boast aloud about how badass they all were. Instead, a repetitive electric banjo has to tell us that something fun yet murderous is going down.

Dillinger and his crew, mostly, operate with ruthless efficiency. At least, that’s how Michael Mann wants us to see them. Sure, Dillinger was famous for getting in and out of banks with a speed that made the ladies look at him funny, but trust Mann to put far more effort into setting up the robberies, the shootouts and the getaways than any other aspect of the flick. The film also has not one but two jail breaks as well, in fact starts with a sterling one at that.

Truth is, these are the best bits of the flick. Any time where someone isn’t breaking out of jail or shooting at cops with Tommy guns, interest flags almost to the point of feeling guilty about wishing more people would get killed.

It’s just that, really, Dillinger wasn’t apparently that interesting a character.
If he was, then Johnny Depp, Michael Mann and the screenwriters have contrived to render him somewhat dull. Sure, we get the fact that he was a bit of a sly rogue, and a hit with the ladies, but there’s not really much else, is there? He robbed banks because he was a bank robber. He liked having money, but not really earning it in any way apart from shooting people for it. It was the Great Depression, after all. He was, along with other flamboyant and murderous cretins like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, very much sought after by the authorities.

J. Edgar Hoover, in the process of creating the FBI in his own image, uses the spectre and the potential capture of these men as a cudgel with which to force Congress to give him the funds and latitude to turn the Bureau into what he wants. As played by Billy Crudup, with a tremendous accent, Hoover manfully strides around the set saying “G Man” this and “G Man” that, passionately referring to these professional law enforcement officers as some kind of super genius paramilitary organisation with book smarts, science and lots of guns on its side. It’s hilarious watching primitive wire taps garnering information which is cut into old school vinyl records on the spot at a telephone exchange, but the rudiments are there in order to show the origins of the forensics / crime fighting nexus.

Meanwhile, much mention is made of how it was with the Mob’s protection and aid that Dillinger and his gang lasted as long as they did, and with the subsequent withdrawal of said support that they foundered. And some of the machinations behind the scenes are somewhat, um, diverting for a while in anticipation of the next shoot out.

It’s just such a long haul, though. These guys really aren’t as interesting in conversation as opposed to in action. Maybe it’s a reflection of Mann’s underlying theory of meaning, in that his kinds of characters are always more interesting when they’re working, whatever their chosen field of expertise is, rather than when they’re talking about anything except their work. I know plenty of people like that, and they can be quite tiresome at parties, depending on their job, but I don’t know if I’d want to watch a whole movie about one of them.

Bale is becoming a parody of himself, and lends his character of G Man Purvis with an expressionless, mindless modality that seems like spending any time in his presence would be quite irritating. I suspect that if some agent or manager gets through to whatever planet Bale’s living on at the moment, they’re going to convince him to do a few romantic comedies or stuff with puppies and kittens in order to fool people into thinking he’s human again. Either that or he’s going to join the church of Scientology.

And, sure, Depp gets to grin rakishly and play the charmer, but he doesn’t really do anything here he hasn’t done dozens of times elsewhere. He has a bunch of scenes with love interest Billie, played adequately by Marion Cotillard, who’s picking up a Hollywood paycheck as reward for Oscar winning work as Edith Piaf recently, but their scenes never really gel. It’s only later on, when they are separated by circumstance and the presence of hundreds of men with guns, that she shines, a bit. She unfortunately manages to piss off a fairly rotund looking G Man, who proceeds to abuse her with slaps, fists and phonebooks because she’s made him look like a fool. It’s somewhat sad to me that in these scenes, where she’s suffering for her inexplicable love of Dillinger (which also nets her a couple of years in jail), she’s stronger than in scenes where she’s mooning over Dillinger when he’s sitting right next to her.

Depp goes from looking dapper, to looking like Howard Hughes (before he went completely crazy), to looking dapper again, but is inert when he’s not shooting or yelling at people. We never get an inkling as to who he is apart from being his own advertisement for his own film. He smiles proudly when he’s sitting in a cinema, and the news reel includes an exhortation to the audience to look to their left and right in order to see if Dillinger himself is sitting next to them, but beyond that, yes, he likes the money and being public enemy number one, but so fucking what? It’s never explained as to why he never had the sense to leave the place where the greatest number of people were looking for him, except perhaps out of arrogant stupidity.

There’s a scene where Dillinger walks into a Chicago police department which has an entire section devoted to bringing him down. Of course we’re supposed to see it as a hilariously ballsy example of how much of a carefree daredevil he was, but there’s another way to look at it, I guess. Like that he was either pretty dumb, or had a hell of a death wish.

His well documented demise in front of The Biograph theatre is staged as one would expect, with a few embellishments which don’t really add anything. I felt odd and deflated at the film’s end, not because Dillinger was no longer around, but because the journey towards the film’s denouement made me question as to whether the trip was worthwhile. I’m not sure it was. At least half an hour could have been cut out of this flick, maybe more, or maybe an hour should have been added, to give me sufficient material to understand and care why anyone was doing what they were doing. It probably wouldn’t have helped.

In the end, there are some bursts of gunfire, and some well staged action that will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten most of the banal dialogue and plotting. The look of the flick is immaculate, even if it’s filmed on digital video, Mann’s medium of choice these days. It allows for a certain kind of intimacy in scenes where it would otherwise be hard to come by. It does lead, though, to some confusion on my part as to night scenes which are overlit in a way that made me think less about what was going on as opposed to where, when G Men are converging on a secluded cabin location in the middle of the night in the middle of a forest, all the bright lights were meant to be coming from. Fireflies? Aurora Borealis? UFOs?

I know it seems petty, but it dragged me out of the story, especially a story in which I was already insufficiently caught up in.

There was one character I really, really liked in this, that of a hardcore agent called Special Agent Winstead, played by character actor Stephen Lang. I remember the actor vaguely from stuff like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Manhunter, but in this he was really strong. I’m not sure why. There’s this way that he carries himself in the film, whether it’s taking out members of Dillinger’s crew in a gun battle, or beating up on the chubby, incompetent G Man abusing Billie, or delivering a dying man’s last words, there was this incredible presence to this character, who was almost worth the price of admission. There was just something about everything he did which really endeared him to me, far more so than Bale or Depp, who are just cashing cheques here.

Public Enemies is good enough, I guess, for a single viewing, but not much good for anything else. It doesn’t say anything that new that we didn’t already know about Dillinger (he’s still dead, after all), and doesn’t really do much, apart from the gun battles, that hasn’t been done by a million other flicks set in the same era.

In all honesty, the best thing it does is remind me how much I’ll enjoy watching Miller’s Crossing again, instead of ever watching this again.

6 times frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Depp out of 10

“We're having too good a time today. We ain't thinking about tomorrow.” – what would be the point, anyway, Public Enemies.