Thursday, August 27, 2009

Film Review: Public Enemies (2009)

On paper Public Enemies looked like a dream come true for any genre film fan. An authentically re-created gangster flick about John Dillinger, directed by Michael Mann with Mr. Charisma himself, Johnny Depp, essaying the infamous bank robber. Couldn't possibly fail, right? The tricky part however, is that when you are doing a film about a real life person or event, you have two ways you can go about it - make it as accurate as possible, or let your “artistic license” guide the story over solid facts. Sometimes the latter is better, and certainly can make for a better piece of entertainment. Enemies is undeniably in the latter group. The historical accuracy of John Dillinger’s life is dubiously muddled and lacking depth here, but without doubt, it is also presented in a way that keeps you glued to the screen.

The film’s biggest downfall is clearly the screenplay. The director has not exactly let it soar despite still fluffing the facts to his advantage, making it an off kilter hybrid of biopic and blockbuster, ala the (more accomplished) Mann produced, Martin Scorsese directed, The Aviator. Granted the dialogue is smart, snappy and significant at the right moments, it still only serves to help cover up the overall clumsiness of the writing. The relationships are not explored enough to have significant meaning or emotional impact, the jail escapes feel far too easy for Dillinger and the robberies, well, they are too short to be overly compelling. The action however is well done; an exciting forest shoot out midway through is handled perfectly by the HD video Mann favours so much these days. There is no denying Public Enemies is very accomplished on a technical level. An award worthy production design recreates the era immaculately, the editing is sharp and the score rises at all the right emotional peaks. The substance of the story just fails to match it unfortunately.
The performances are fairly good and even though Christian Bale, as the complicated Melvin Pervis, is often labelled with the “wooden” tag of late, I saw enough in his wordless nuances for it to be a convincing portrayal for me. I think it was a nicely subtle effort from him. Of course, I lapped up Depp’s (or Dillinger’s?) charm for sure. Depp seems to have become a very effortless actor - making it a fine line telling if whether he is actually being very good or just average. I thought he was good here, but again, the uber-cool dialogue he drawls probably helped to convince me of the former. The support cast was excellent. So many familiar faces; from TV actors to some older, recognisable character performers, the standouts were easily Stephen Graham and Billy Crudup, as Baby Face Nelson and J. Edgar Hoover respectively.

If you like it, the next obvious question seems to be: is it in the same class as Heat? The short answer is not even close, despite several similarities to the 1995 film (including the line “We here for the bank’s money, not yours”). To be fair, it was always a lofty height to actually reach for a director who seemed to be losing his touch with his last couple of films. What cannot be denied though, is that at its core, Public Enemies is solid entertainment and for better or worse, Mann’s best effort in a while. Worth it for the escapism, not the history lesson.

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