Johnny Depp fulfills a lifelong ambition by having his name printed laterally across the shaft of his penis.
Sometimes I wish I were just an ordinary audience member (not that I’m removed from that by anything other than conceit and a WordPress account), so I could look at Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES and just say “Blah… what a tedious film.” For in many ways that would be the correct response, and such is the film’s deadening aspect that one does wonder if any critical analysis can produce anything worthwhile from this flat spectacle.
Johnny Depp is John Dillinger, celebrity bank robber, who says things like “You can either be a live coward or a dead hero,” and “I like baseball, fast cars, whisky and you,” which is nice. But Depp is somewhat muted, the way he was in THE NINTH GATE: an actor dedicated to flamboyance, he’s at sea in Mann’s world of low-talking hard men. And Mann is at sea with the showbiz side of Dillinger. He’s a stranger to gusto.
Here’s one problem: how is this film different from HEAT? If you like HEAT, I guess you won’t care, but for me, both films are long, unexciting films about low-affect thugs who talk a lot about how professional they are, and then act like idiots. In HEAT, DeNiro decides to kill a guy who’s threatening him with exposure, so he attacks the guy very publicly in a car park, using only blunt instruments, such as his fists and wits. One of those situations where I always think, “If a witness shows up and spoils things, I’ll be annoyed. And if a witness doesn’t show up and spoil things, I’ll STILL be annoyed.”
A witness shows up. DeNiro stops kicking the guy, acts innocent (he doesn’t quite rolls his eyes up and hang his mouth open like Harpo Marx looking innocent, but it’s similar) and when the witness (I think maybe a COP CAR) drives off, he gets set to resume the beating, but his prey has somehow crawled off and vanished. Even though he was right there.
Christian Bale lost 63 pounds, and then put them on again, to play Special Agent Melvin Purvis.
In PUBLIC ENEMIES it’s the Bureau of Investigation guys who do the stupid stuff, disobeying direct orders and getting killed, repeatedly letting Dillinger go by — Christian Bayle’s college-boy agents let him down continuously. So he gets some veterans from Texas, and the ignores their advice. Dillinger escapes again. It’s one of these combat-hardened vets who actually plugs Dillinger at the end, and he’s one of the few good characters in the film: Stephen Lang is steely-eyed and magnetic, and his character is actually competent, amid an ocean of assholes.
Mann could have used the factual catalogue of blunders to poke fun of the formative FBI, or he could have used the scenes of torture and reckless trigger-happy public endangerment to condemn them, but he doesn’t seem to want to say anything. I felt like yelling through the film at him, using it as some kind of Hi-Def ear-trumpet, quoting Graham Crowden in IF… — “Do You Have An OPINION???”
All this might pass if the film had an appealing aesthetic, but I struggled, I really did, to find anything worthwhile about it. Mann has spoken about how he tested the digital cameras for a lark, and found that on film, his test scene looked like a movie set in the ’30s, whereas on digital it looked like he’d gone back in time and was IN the ’30s. Which sounds nice, but it doesn’t play that to me. To me it looks like a YouTube video in fancy dress. Digital has advanced to a point where you often need expertise to tell it from film, but Mann succeeds in making it look fuzzy and dead.
(Full disclosure: my local gigaplex, the Vue Ocean Terminal, underlights its projectors, has disfigured screens, and lets light spill onto the screen from the exit. So the film wasn’t looking its best. But I still think this is one that’ll look better on DVD.)
Mann juggles oddball angles looking up under machine guns at faces, uses handheld shots to create a sick-making motion blur whenever he can, and cuts things into what Roman Polanski has called “that fruit-salad style…” The art deco locations are often dazzling, but the camera is never in synch with their cool splendor.
The “great romance” aspect of the film, not really borne out by history, is shot dead execution-style by the limp playing of Depp and Marion Cotillard (all her concentration is going on not sound too French) and by Mann’s total disinterest in women, which also results in the pathetic wastage of Lilli Taylor. Since Mann, like Cotillard’s character, is completely unconcerned with any moral view of what Dillinger does for a living, you’d think he’d have more identification with her.
(Roger Corman, in BLOODY MAMA and THE ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, both of which I saw recently, is likewise uninterested in preaching or taking sides, but he IS ripping the veil from off the American capitalist dream. You can’t accuse him of not having a point of view. All Mann has is a viewfinder, generally aimed up at somebody from under their armpit.)
Thing about MM is, he has lots of ideas, but they generally work better in his head than on the screen: the jump-cuts in MANHUNTER, the long-lens confusion of LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Of course, nobody with Mann’s sense and budget could make this movie without hitting some good points: the phone-tapping room, a constellation of little glowing lights; and Dillinger’s last night with his girl, in a barren moonscape lit by chill morgue-rays — such moments suggest that a ’30s digital movie COULD look beautiful.
And Dillinger’s sly visit to the offices where his case is being investigated — which I assume to be at least partly poetic license, since we never see him tell anyone about it, so how would the screenwriters know it happened? — is a nicely mythic and romantic moment, like Dillinger’s last words… a few moments of this kind impress, late in the day.
Oh, there’s another impressive actor in the thing: Peter Gerety as Dillinger’s lawyer. I wonder if his dialogue in court is straight from the historical record, because he sure talks better than anybody else in this film. Maybe such able thesps as Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Marion Cotillard and Giovanni Ribisi make such little impact because of the weedy dialogue, which is devoid of all period zing (in the zingiest slangiest era in American history!), stranding the cast in a neutral zone of slow, emphatic delivery. (I know pastiche is the last thing on Mann’s mind, but folks in ’30s flicks talk FAST, and that would be a wonderful thing to offer modern audiences.)
Got home and slung an authentic 1930s crime-flick, THE BEAST OF THE CITY, in the old Panasonic, and within minutes was exulting in lines like ~
Cop: Mind if I ask you some questions?
Jean Harlow: Sure, if you don’t ask them in Yiddish.
Jean Harlow (embracing cop): Are you going to reform me?
Cop: What for?
EVERY line in that film seemed to sparkle and crackle with lust, malice and wanton throwaway wit. By contrast, the verbiage emanating at snail-speed from the kissers of Mann’s barely-dramatis personae cuts about as much mustard as a hash-slinger with hooks for hands. See?
Still, Mann’s usual stumbling-block is music — I recall with rising nausea the synth-pop atrocities of MANHUNTER, the smorgasbord of ethnic stylings in THE INSIDER (“The most heterosexual movie ever made! It’s nothing but angry men shouting into HUGE PHONES!” – Ben Halligan) and the somnolent Tangerine Dream drones of THIEF. Here he does about as badly as you could do in a rich musical decade, but not half as badly as he normally does. The bluesy humming is actually quite nice, although it’s diluted with lots of other effects which don’t mesh into a whole, and every time the radio is on its Billie Holliday, which is fine but limited.
As in ALI, Man shows an interest in resurrecting history but never illuminates it. Dillinger appears to have escaped from prison in Indiana by carving a gun from a bar of soap, blackening it with shoe-polish, and holding up the guards. Woody Allen parodied this in his first film, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, where Allen’s home-made side-arm dissolves into a lather during a rainstorm. But Mann includes the incident without explaining the fake gun at all. (An alternative theory, from cult author Robert Anton Wilson: Dillinger meditated real hard, and teleported out of his cell. I’d watch THAT movie. Twice!)
Likewise he shows a judge taunting J. Edgar Hoover for never actually arresting anyone, without showing the punchline, which is included in Larry Cohen’s THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER: Hoover stage-managed an arrest and turned up to snap the cuffs into place, a troupe of tame news cameramen in tow. Mann exposes himself as a filmmaker with no sense of humour — or storytelling.
A closing title tells us that (predictably dead-eyed) Christian Bayle’s real-life character resigned from the Bureau a year after Dillinger’s death, and killed himself in 1960. And I wondered, why tell us that? The movie hasn’t done anything to explain such actions, we barely even know this guy, so what’s the point of telling us?