‘Enemies’ is Like ‘Heat’ Without the Heat
Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" seems initially crafted as a retro version of his 1995 crime drama "Heat," which pitted Robert De Niro and Al Pacino against each other as criminal and lawman, hunter and hunted, ham and wry. Like "Heat," the two stars of "Public Enemies" — Johnny Depp and Christian Bale — come face to face just once, otherwise operating in separate spheres as Depp's John Dillinger prepares for a last big score, and Bale's G-man uses the latest in 1933 detection methods to catch him. Unlike "Heat," though, "Public Enemies" barely raises enough temperature to make tea.
As if yearning for his own last big score, director Mann's ambition gets the best of him, presenting the John Dillinger legend as the granddaddy of every crime cliche in Hollywood history — where a Robin Hood-like robber inspires loyalty among colleagues, popularity in the public and animosity at the upper levels of law enforcement (in this case, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, played by Billy Crudup). A pileup of scenes includes three Chicago bank hits, two jailbreaks, two car chases (one slow-moving, one fast), a massive shootout in the woods (with a noisy rain of bullets to rival the violent ending of "Bonnie & Clyde") and two self-referential incidents in a movie theater, as if tipping the fedora to the golden age of gangster flicks. Mann even manages to slide in a modern riff about the ineffectiveness of harsh interrogation (or as the less timid call it, torture).
All the elements are there — tommy guns, notorious pals (Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson), gun molls (sultry-sweet Marion Cotillard and a briefly seen Leelee Sobieski), the excellent period details and cocky wisecracks. What's missing is focus: Mann can't decide whether to excite us with action or seduce us with character, so he divides his efforts between both. The weighted-down result is like taking a joy ride in a well-polished old Buick that has four flat tires, emitting exhaust puffs of disappointment as it goes along.
Quick question: Aren't shootouts supposed to be fun to watch? I ask because Mann gives more emphasis to the sounds of bullets splintering trees than the logistics of spatial relations, and not a single set piece has the oomph of, for example, the elaborate and deeply enjoyable staircase sequence in Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables." Call in the Mann-hunter: Where is the director who gave us the pulse-pounding chases of "Collateral," or the moody purposefulness of "The Insider"?
As actors, Depp and Bale tend to be blank slates, only as charismatic as the movie they're in (unlike De Niro and Pacino), and "Public Enemies" fails them. Named Melvin Purvis (look out, Eliot Ness!), Bale's character is, in short, crime detection's first nerd: He uses what were then newly developed police procedures, turning the tiniest details (such as a coat's label) into useful leads. The screenplay (by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) pretty well gives up on making him interesting, other than occasionally echoing the impulsiveness and overconfidence of Depp's Dillinger.
So, the burden of the drama then goes to Depp, who has to work with a script that prefers wan hints to well-developed themes. As Dante Spinotti's cinematography shifts from stark to dark, Dillinger's boldness (waltzing incognito into the offices of his pursuers) and self-fascination (viewing his "public enemy No. 1" image on a movie screen as if gazing at a giant mirror) gradually gives way to resignation about his lonely doom. It's a dramatic arc reminiscent of Terrence Malick's "Badlands" — which also combined antiheroic vanity and innocent, misguided love — and Andrew Dominik's surreally atmospheric "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," each more poetic and hypnotic works.
"Public Enemies" tries to match those films' mesmerizing qualities, but the result is more like sleepiness punctuated by gunfire.
"Public Enemies." Rated: R. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes. 2 stars.
To find out more about Zachary Woodruff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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