Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Enemies ***

Public Enemies
*** out of ****

The Oscar race seems to be starting early this year. A summer film rarely gets remembered when it comes time to vote for the best in Hollywood, but something tells me voters will remember this film.
Michael Mann has crafted an intelligent period crime drama that features stellar performances from the entire cast. The year is 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression. (At least that's when the movie opens; it's unclear how much time has passed by the end.) The script focuses on two main characters: John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber; and Melvin Purvis, the famous FBI agent hunting Dillinger. The cat-and-mouse game is seen from both angles and the triumphs and mistakes of these two intelligent men are supremely entertaining. Johnny Depp makes another career-defining performance as Dillinger, a private man that doesn't let people in easily, and so we learn very little about him. We know that he's very suave and loves being a celebrity. He's violent but doesn't kill people unless he feels he has to. Christian Bale (another actor having a very good summer; see: Terminator: Salvation) plays Purvis, a man who seems to have no private life at all: he has devoted his entire life to catching and killing John Dillinger.
The movie opens with Dillinger breaking his gang out of prison and then going on the run. Purvis is promoted to the head of the Chicago police and starts his Dillinger investigation. The gang continues robbing banks and eluding the police. Eventually Dillinger is captured, arrested, and sent to prison, where he escapes after about ten minutes and gets away with as much charisma and cool as James Bond. Purvis seems to take this personally and intensifies the investigation, resulting in multiple deaths. The movie's long ending chronicles Dillinger's death, (spoiler here if you don't know your history) in which he is betrayed by a friend and shot after walking out of a movie. Interestingly, the movie was a Clark Gable gangster flick, which the filmmakers clunkily try to put into the plot and help bring the film to a close. The dialogue is also noteworthy here. All of the 30's jargon makes sense and sounds accurate, and Depp always has the best lines. My personal favorite, used brilliantly in the trailer: "We're too good for 'em. They ain't tough enough, smart enough, or fast enough. I can hit any bank I want, anytime. They got to be at every bank, all the time." Another line destined to be a classic: "What's the score?" See the movie to find out why.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Billie Frechette, played by the regal Marion Cotillard. Dillinger meets Billie by chance and quickly and easily sweeps her off her feet and makes her his girl. Despite what you'd think, Billie is not stupid or slutty, just a country girl looking for adventure, and finding it in this real-life Robin Hood. All three leads- Depp, Bale, and Cotillard- deserve Oscar nominations for thier portrayals of real-life people in this unsettling time. It's already pretty much guaranteed its win for Best Costume Design.
Other stars appear in smaller parts, and they each serve their purpose. Billy Crudup (of recent Watchmen fame) plays J. Edgar Hoover, who is desperate to catch Dillinger to defend his reputation. David Wenham (Faramir in The Lord of the Rings movies) plays one of Dillinger's gang members who he springs from jail. Channing Tatum has a small but cool role as Pretty Boy Floyd, a criminal on the run who Purvis kills early on. Lost's Emilie de Ravin has a painfully small part as a woman Dillinger kidnaps from a bank heist and uses as cover so the cops won't shoot him.
There seems to be some hate out there for this film, and I think I can pinpoint the reason why: the trailer advertises it as a complex action thriller, and while it does have plenty of shoot-outs, prison escapes, and bank heist sequences, it is predominantly a character-driven drama. The handheld camerawork gives the audience a fly-on-the-wall feeling as if you were riding in the same car with these people. It also rarely uses a musical score to make the action seem more real, and sometimes this backfires: although the film moves along very quickly for its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the lack of music seems to make some scenes drag. Some audience members also seem to be turned off by the fact that we don't get to know these characters very well, but I think that's intentional; these people lived in the public spotlight, and so we see what they showed to the public.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes crime films, noir films, Johnny Depp, or Michael Mann.

You can watch the trailer here:

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