Friday, July 3, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

Public Enemies tells the story of John Dillinger’s 3 year crime spree from 1933-1936 and it seems this movie covers every single minute of it.  This movie is long.  Titanic long.  Gone With the Wind long.  19 minutes of extra footage in Star Trek: The Motion Picture long.  It’s two movies for the price of one.  In fact, not knowing the Dillinger history, I thought the movie was going to end 30 minutes earlier than it did.

John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, was a notorious bank-robber in the 1930s.  His charisma and charm made him famous as a modern-day Robin Hood.  Though, he never gave any of his money to the poor.  Pursued by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigations, Dillinger is declared Public Enemy #1 by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup).  We’re not sure who the other Public Enemies are or if any of Dillinger’s co-horts were numbers 2, 3, or 4.

Dillinger was the epitome of the 1930s gangster, with the long coat, the fedora, and the Thompson machine gun.  Actually, in the movie everybody dresses this way.  The difference being that the gangsters are the ones holding machine guns and hanging on to the sides of cars.  Dillinger wasted little time in his robberies, getting in and out in about a minute and a half.  While not addressed specifically in the film, it seems that Dillinger made a point of not harming the common man.  He refused to take customers’ money during the robberies (though whose money was in the bank?) and he took great care not to kill innocent bystanders or hostages.  Whether this was historically the case isn’t clear, but the FBI didn’t hesitate to shoot him on sight.  Kind of harsh for a bank robber.

Director Michael Mann seems to like long movies.  Collateral, Miami Vice, and Ali all clock in at over 2 hours.  These movies don’t feel that long, though.  (Well, except for Miami Vice.  I couldn’t actually get through the whole thing.)  Public Enemies feels like a long movie.  Not enough gun battles and bank robberies.  Too many scenes trying to develop the characters.  Yet, not much develops during these scenes.  Dillinger himself sums up the movie’s approach to examining the Dillinger character: 

“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars... and you. What else you need to know?”

We don’t learn much more about Hoover or Purvis, the men pursuing Dillinger, though both Crudup and Bale do a good job portraying them.  Crudup, last seen as the glowing, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, captures the essence of J. Edgar Hoover with a classic, newsreel footage speech pattern.  

Christian Bale certainly needs more work.  I mean, he’s only been cast as Batman, John Conner and now FBI agent Melvin Purvis.  Why wasn’t he Captain Kirk, Wolverine, or the voice of Carl in Up?  We hardly see him anymore.  Oddly enough, he has very little screen time in this movie.  There’s really only one confrontation between Purvis and Dillinger.  Purvis says very little and Dillinger has all the funny lines.

***Spoilers, see?  Yeah.***

There are other funny and entertaining moments in the film.  Most of which  are in the movie trailer.  While attending a movie, Dillinger sees himself projected on the screen during a newsreel.  The lights come up and the announcer tells everyone in the theatre to look to their right and left, because Dillinger may be right there with them.  And he is.  Luckily he’s surrounded by his buddies.  (And if you look left and the guy next to you looks left, all you’re seeing is the back of his head.)  It’s a very effective image as Dillinger is the only one not looking around, but looking straight ahead with a smirk on his face.

Later, Dillinger manages to walk into the Chicago Police Department and tour the Dillinger division.  Going unnoticed, he examines all the evidence against him and the pictures of his dead partners.  Apparently this really happened.  It’s a nice moment that comes almost too late in the film.

There is also a brief funny moment when John Dillinger meets his soon-to-be girlfriend Billie.  When introducing himself he uses the alias Jack.  Now while this is a legitimate nickname for John, I couldn't help thinking of a certain pirate Depp used to play.  Apparently I was the only one in the theatre who found this amusing.

***Alright, enough of the spoilers, kid***

The look of Public Enemies resembles that of Mann’s previous work, Collateral.  Also shot in HD video instead of film, the look of the movie goes from very grainy to very sharp.  It’s shot almost completely hand-held.  Both contribute to the realistic look of the footage as one can imagine this was shot during the actual events.  But it’s distracting.  At one point you’re looking at a beautiful high definition picture and then you’re looking at something from a home video camera.  The action is difficult to follow and with everyone wearing fedoras and trench coats, it’s hard to tell who’s good and who’s bad.  There are some intentional black and white shots made to look like actual footage, which are quite effective.  And it may have been just in our theatre, but the sound was too low making dialogue very hard to hear.

The costuming is first rate and everybody looks gorgeous.  Depp's and Bale's costumes in particular are eye-catching and lend an authenticity to the movie.  I personally hope this movie brings the 30s style of dress back into fashion.  How else am I going to wear my fedoras in public?

Filled with entertaining moments and solid performances, Public Enemies gives us a little insight into the life and crimes of John Dillinger.  There is just too much here to wade through while you're waiting for the good parts.  I'd recommend waiting for the DVD, but they'll probably add even more footage making the movie even longer than 2 hours and 23 minutes.

-POPped full of lead by ReevesReel-

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