Thursday, January 7, 2010

Home Video: Public Enemies

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
Released July 1, 2009

Johnny Depp is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to extravagant, loud, showy, obnoxious characters. He’s the perfect fit for roles like Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka, and there’s a certain oddity to him that works magnificently in those parts. But when Depp is charged with playing a far more conventional and normal kind of character, something is lost (see “Finding Neverland”). He’s considerably less accessible when he isn’t afforded the opportunity to wave his hands around wildly or put on a silly voice. Faced with the historical personality of famed bank robber and supposed menace to society John Dillinger, Depp conveys something of his eccentricity but doesn’t fully conquer the role. It’s a case of miscasting and missed opportunity, one which backfires for the film has a whole.

“Public Enemies” is clearly meant to be a crime caper with a cat-and-mouse relationship between the elusive and showy Dillinger and his dogged pursuer Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Director Michael Mann has made crime movies with an enticingly quick pulse recently, with 2006’s “Miami Vice” and 2004’s “Collateral.” This film feels like it’s eight hours long compared to those, and isn’t half as interesting as either of them. It seems designed to really probe and expose the characters and motivations of Dillinger and Purvis, but it fails to achieve any sort of dramatic height. That failure is especially disappointing considering Mann’s skill at building up and deconstructing nemeses, as in 1995’s “Heat,” and his potential to create a compelling thriller from an ordinary story, demonstrated in his Oscar-nominated “The Insider.”

“Public Enemies” might have done well to take its title to heart. The enemies in question aren’t “in public,” so they can’t possibly be referring to cop and robber Purvis and Dillinger. The plural enemies instead includes Dillinger’s crew, and the movie might have done better to dwell on its supporting characters. Why Jason Clarke, so excellent in his role on TV’s “Brotherhood,” is give only a few lines to utter throughout the entire film is a mystery, since he’s often seen as Dillinger’s right-hand man. This is yet another example of Christian Bale being unnecessary to the movies in which he stars, after his lackluster performances in “Terminator Salvation” and “The Dark Knight” recently. Cutting him out wouldn’t have detracted from this film in the slightest way.

Elliot Goldenthal’s slick score works with the idea that this is a much better movie than it actually is. Considering the talent involved, it should have been a far more fine-tuned and glossy adventure, but it falls terribly short. There’s no real intrigue since the character of John Dillinger is not extraordinarily defined, and his detachment from pretty much everyone in his life prevents him from being a great hero or even a sympathetic drifter. It seems like a story that could have been so much cooler and infinitely more exciting. It’s not just the two leads that don’t work, and it’s all the more regrettable because it chould have been a thrilling escapade.


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