Thursday, August 6, 2009

Review: 'Public Enemies' (A)

By Chase Kahn

(originally reviewed on 06/30/09) -- Face-to-face are notorious outlaw John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) -- the former behind bars, the latter outside of them -- or is it the other way around? Dillinger upstages him by breaking into Purvis' one weakness: his repugnance and untested psyche towards the loss of human life. "It's hard the first time", Dillinger taunts.

So sets off the fuse to the clash of the titans, the hunter versus the hunted -- who are both played as sympathetic despite their representative factions. Purvis represents the cruel, no-holds, blossoming and slimy system of justice while Dillinger is the gun-toting, mischievious and against-the-system criminal. Both men stand out in their profession, providing targets for audience sympathy and understanding.

Director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) is at home here in this battleground of thievery and outlaws taking on lawmen who may be equally as smug and disreputable. The film is flooded with supporting characters who are given maybe a glance or two, but the action and the camera are squarely focused on the film's two leads, plus Dillinger's fresh catch, Billie Frichette -- played exceedingly well and glamorously by Marion Cotillard -- as a defiant and petulant woman who is attracted to the covetousness and protective allure of her outlawed gunman.

Mann's gangster saga is not traditionally filmed -- here he has opted for an ultra-slick, ultra-sharp high-definition digital look that turns Public Enemies from film to stark reality -- period to contemporary. Gunshots looks like strobe lights in the night and bullets visibly skatter and shred through obstacles. It's a bold stroke by an artist pushing the genre and as a result, the film is a visual powerhouse -- an aesthetically arousing portrait of a bygone era and an anchor to the film's almost strict and no-frills narrative.

Public Enemies is decidedly straightforward and narrow -- as I said, supporting characters like Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) are introduced like extras. Giovanni Ribisi, David Wenham and Carey Mulligan are also bit players. Nor is the film interested in any sort of context regarding the era and the celebrity of John Dillinger. We see briefly that the people love him and we are told in an opening text that it's the Great Depression but we don't see it. Mann is more interested in the thrill of the chase, the lifestyle and personal life of the outlaw, plus the mirrored relationship between cop and robber.

In the film's final act -- which famously and historically depicts Dillinger's last hurrah at a screening of Manhattan Melodrama, the character does an about-face. Throughout the film, his is so recklessly caught up in the moment that -- like the film itself -- he rarely has time to reflect until he catches the gaze of former Hollywood icon Myrna Loy, who has a striking resemblance to his Billie (Cottilard). When a cocky, grinning Clark Gable dares the remaing prisoners in the film to, "die the way you live", it's just icing on the cake. Dillinger has come to terms with his fate in his final hours -- a poignant and moving scene to say the least.

It sets up a conflicted mix of emotions as the "Dillinger Squad" is waiting outside the theater ready to unleash the trap. Bale's agent Purvis has been hesitantly and fearfully noncomittal about the fragile mortality of human life (even in his enemies) and here he find himself exerting his efforts to kill a man who has, until this point, been invincible. It's a fascinating dichotomy and confirmation that this is Mann's show -- a sprawling art film, narrowly focused, minimally scoped and exceedingly well-executed. For once, we have a gangster pic that prefers restraint over deluge.