Friday, January 8, 2010

Public Enemies-And Criminal Justice for All


On paper, this sounds like an Academy Award contender. In execution, there's something that just never quite gelled for me. The cinematography is fantastic at certain points, but not consistently. The cast is amazing, but never interact enough together. The soundtrack is delightful but used sparsely. The settings and costumes are authentic and dedicatedly researched, but there's something in the story that doesn't feel authentic.

Michael Mann himself seems to be a director filled with contradictory notions though. This is the man that brought us The Last of the Mohicans, followed by Heat; Collateral followed by Miami Vice. There's no question as to the caliber of actors that usually want to work with Mr. Mann, only the way in which he sometimes uses them. Public Enemies is no exception. The cast assembled here is top-notch, without a doubt. Led by Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, followed up by Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup and a number of people in secondary roles that have been leads in numerous other movies, there's no lack of talent. I just don't necessarily feel that it was put to the best use. If Bale and Depp are in a movie together, I'd like to see them share more than 2 scenes. Everything about this movie feels very segregated, more like a sequence of scenes than a cohesive story, and part of that is due to the segregation of the actors.

Not that the segregation is unintentional though. This is a story of bad and good, right and wrong, justice and crime, or is it? The title "Public Enemies" implies a plural enemy but more than that, it puts in one's mind the question of who indeed are these enemies? History and social norms would have an audience choose to follow the side of Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis, a flunkie of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. No doubt, Purvis started out as an honest innocent, who just wanted to put the bad guys behind bars. But Mann doesn't seem to abide by the government very much. In fact, what seems to follow is a flogging of the fledgling Bureau in the first degree. J. Edgar Hoover is power hungry, prone to lawbreaking himself, and hiring mercenaries.

In opposition is the almost Robin Hood-like John Dillinger, robbing banks, but telling the customers "keep your money. I'm here for the bank's money, not yours." Sure he carries a gun, sure he escapes from jail, but is he the real public enemy or is he running from the public's enemy? While set up as dichotomies of the system, what eventually emerges are two sides of the same coin; a story of two men whose ideals are pushed to the brink, forcing them to become the people they swore they never would. Dillinger, normally thoughtful and methodic, smart and prepared begins making rash decisions; Purvis, normally thoughtful and methodic, just and law-abiding turns to questionable methods in an effort to prove his worth. Ultimately both betray themselves and well, as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.

There are shots of brilliance in the cinematography, particularly the scenes in which Dillinger is paraded through the public, usually utilizing a blurred flare to provide an eerie glow, but the pacing of the story in general feels lopsided at best. When there are lulls, it seems the only device Mann employs is an all-out hail of bullets. What should have been a unique and interesting story gets bogged down in its own attempts to show the truth of human nature. Instead of letting that human nature unfold naturally.

Overall, most certainly a movie of contradictions, but worth at least one watch.
3 out of 5 getaways

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