10 July 2009

Public Enemies

Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann & Ann Biderman
Full credits from IMDb

Public Enemies, Mann’s quasi-artful account of John Dillinger’s final years, opens with an image of prisoners parading in unison; it’s introduction by contrast: this film is a nostalgic, graytone ode to the last men who marched out of lockstep—Depression-era gangsters. Mann’s film captures the twilight of the outlaw era, the fading romance, the melancholy; the idealized bank robber gives way to the crassness of organized crime and gambling rings; and as the allure and the grandeur of the gangster fades away, it’s replaced by the apotheosis of the more modest lawman (here, Christian Bale, who once again assumes the role of the vigilante who tortures for the greater good). Sigh.

In its chronicling of a thief’s last years, the movie bears a conspicuous conceptual resemblance to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, though it’s the Hollywood-slick version. Andrew Dominik’s film opens with a robbery and spends the rest of its reels tossing and turning in existential conflict; Mann packs in action from credits to credits. That’s not to say that Public Enemies is artless; action sequences are often Mann’s saving grace. (See: Miami Vice.) And there’s a certain lyricism in Mann’s HD camera, the movie’s most impressive feature, especially the way it often clings to the performers’ faces in close-up, as in Dillinger’s stunningly shot death flop. There’s also a marvelous scene near the end in which Dillinger wanders in to the detective bureau’s Dillinger Squad office, surveying the photographs and newspaper clippings as though a ghost visiting his very own museum, as well as a touching sequence in which Johnny Depp, as the other John D., reacts to Clark Gable’s poignant portrayal of a gangster in Manhattan Melodrama, our hero's last picture show. (The aptness of several moments from that film to the drama we’re watching is a serendipitous delight, and the filmmakers make the most of it.) But for all the graceful touches, the movie is at heart your typical gangster movie, a succession of bank robberies, jailbreaks, and shootouts starring press-charming crooks, sultry molls and temperamental cops. You’ve seen it before, but may as well see it again, given the sturdiness of the storytelling—and how handsome it looks. Grade: B

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