Sunday, July 05, 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES. Maybe I just have a bad chemical reaction to Michael Mann movies. I can barely remember The Insider or Heat, though I recall there were things in them that I liked; they just seemed lumpy and unfocused and their ponderousness overwhelmed even the very good acting (though Christopher Plummer's Mike Wallace, a professional trimmer with good excuses, sticks in my mind. Plummer was a fine actor in his younger days, but his late performances are sublime).

Public Enemies is no improvement, though since I saw it Friday I can recall it a little better. The first bank robbery was a nice how-to, but after that I lost interest in them, and I suspect Mann did, too. Actually most of the scenes, even when competently handled (and Public Enemies, like many recent action pictures, has bang-bang episodes where you can't tell who's doing what), just sort of lie there. As has elsewhere been noted, Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard never get much of anything going, and after a short while seeing how Dillinger is going to get out of jail or get the money or get killed is no longer a matter of pressing concern.

The major problem is that Dillinger isn't interesting -- not in this telling, anyway. (I've heard good things about the Warren Oates version.) His signal qualities are professionalism, loyalty to friends, and a refusal to admit defeat; the movie would have to have more on its mind than showing this off to carry the day. As it is, he's just an admirable thug with a girlfriend. I think Johnny Depp's decision to play Dillinger quiet and heavily internalized is probably smart star-image-wise -- filmgoers want to see him play a soulful hero once in a while, in between weirdoes -- but disastrous for the movie. Being encouraged to admire a killer and bank-robber hasn't been a fresh trick for decades, and Depp's Dillinger doesn't reward our attention with anything else.

Context doesn't add much. A lot of effort is devoted to social portraiture around the edges; this is well-done but mostly futile. The J. Edgar Hoover and Melvin Purvis characters are meant to show the corruption of the law -- self-righteous in the former case, self-tortured in the latter. But that provides no reason to view Dillinger more kindly. In fact, this kind of comparison -- the crooks are bad, but the G-men are bad too -- is so lazy in the film as to become annoying. Worst of all is the segment where a lawman beats up the girlfriend and Purvis has to step in and rescue her -- mainly because we're supposed to feel for Purvis and it helps put him on the side of the good-bad guys, and maybe because someone figured the girl has to suffer some damage to raise the stakes.

All gangster-hero movies have to get out of these problems; the old black-and-whites usually did it will verbal pizazz and a morality that was just as bogus as Public Enemies' but lighter on the special pleading. Gable's exit in Manhattan Melodrama, of which we see a little in Public Enemies, is the flip side of Cagney's in Angels With Dirty Faces -- a moral conclusion that puts the weight of the downfall on the crook, not his environment. New-Hollywood movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Thieves Like Us were more interested in the hoodlum's environment, but also showed his relationship to it so we could at least get where he was coming from. Also, these heroes are ultimately losers. Dillinger is already a success when we meet him, and his relationship to Depression America is that of a star to his public, waving gamely from the back of a police car. Whatever happens, he's a winner. He has nothing to tell us but how he gets out of trouble, not how he got into it, or why.

There's some good acting in there -- Billy Crudup puts a nice crust of malice and authority on Hoover, and as Red Hamilton Jason Clarke has some scenes with Depp that suggest another, much more interesting movie about their relationship.

1 comment:

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