July 08, 2009
Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s dual biopic about Depression Era bankrobber John Dillinger (played by an introverted Johnny Depp) and G-Man Melvin Purvis (an impassive Christian Bale), is representative of a growing micro-genre: the artistically ambitious crime period piece so stuffed with celebrated masculine talent that bothering to entertain the audience wound up as the lowest priority.
The most stereotypical recent example was the autumnal Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (with Brad Pitt as the Dillinger of the 19th Century), while others include Road to Perdition (Tom Hanks as a hitman in Dillinger’s 1930s Chicago), and There Will Be Blood (with Daniel Day-Lewis as a maniacal oilman), which”admit it”was a snooze until director Paul Thomas Anderson let Day-Lewis ham it up over the last half hour.
After the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Johnny Depp is such a big name that Public Enemies‘s credits list his three personal assistants. Major stars, however, get bored with conventional movies, so they pressure studios into funding prominent directors” follies. Most turn out to be flops, but every so often they make the breakthroughs that keep things interesting.
Long ago, Mann revolutionized the look of television shows with his Miami Vice, and he made some strong movies such as Heat after that. Mann’s self-regard, however, means that he also can waste huge amounts of money and, worse, promising subjects. For instance, in 2001’s Ali, Mann made a biopic about the most popular sportsman of the last generation, Muhammad Ali, starring the most popular movie star of this generation, Will Smith, that not even a mother could love. Public Enemies isn”t as bad as Ali, but it shares some of its flaws: muffled dialogue, incomprehensible plot, excessive darkness, and glum tone.
In contrast, it’s worth comparing Public Enemies to an earlier 2009 cops-and-robbers movie, one made for a fraction of the cost, that was spat upon by critics, got dumped into the theatres during the dead zone of January, and yet wound up making $146 million domestically because its screenplay was expertly crafted to win over its intended audience: Paul Blart, Mall Cop.
As portrayed by funny fat man Kevin James, Paul Blart is a public-spirited authoritarian too hypoglycemic to pass the New Jersey State Trooper physical. In the mean time, he brings a demented but also rather lovely devotion to professionalism to his joke job as an unarmed security guard absurdly (yet gracefully) cruising the corridors of the East Orange, NJ shopping mall on his Segway.
Ironically, Blart’s fanaticism about proper technique is the end product of decades of professionalization in law enforcement. Due to the P.R. genius of J. Edgar Hoover, one celebrated milestone in that evolution was Purvis’s tracking down of Dillinger.
And yet, Public Enemies reminds us of how far policework has come since the death rate for cops hit its peak in the early 1930s. The movie Dillinger engineers two jailbreaks during his short crime spree (the real Dillinger implemented three), while the FBI agents get themselves ineptly killed on stakeouts and repeatedly fail to block get-away routes.
Cops haven”t gotten all that much smarter, but they don”t make those kinds of mistakes as often now because they have procedures. Thus, although crooks are much more heavily armed now than back when Machine Gun Kelly became a household name in 1934, the cop death rate has fallen by three-fourths. A bright boy like John Dillinger doesn”t stand a chance anymore, so non-organized crime these days is for complete losers.
In Paul Blart, James and his co-writer Nick Bakay followed countless time-tested formulas, from Chekov’s Gun (“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act”) on down.
In contrast, Mann and his co-writers violate willy-nilly most rules of form and function. For instance, Public Enemies‘s plot is neither historically accurate nor fictitiously streamlined enough to make sense; there are far too many characters and the actors playing them look too much alike; a major character is introduced with five minutes left in the film and a minor character gets the last word.
James’s family comedy will likely end up earning far more at the box office than Public Enemies because the agile fat fellow succeeded in creating a well-rounded, sympathetic, memorable character, something that Depp and Bale didn”t accomplish between them.
Browsing the public’s reviews of Public Enemies on IMDB.com, I found one by somebody calling himself “Hunt2456.” Judging by the pseudonymous contributor’s combination of historical insight and obsessive knowledge of firearms (“Babyface [Nelson] had a Colt .38 Super converted to a machine pistol with a Thompson vertical fore-grip mounted on the dustcover”), I presume “Hunt2456″ is Stephen Hunter, the crime novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Washington Post.
Hunt2456 enumerates why Public Enemies is disappointing, with this the key:
Dillinger was a star, which is why so many people at the time bought his Robin Hood act. (In truth, “Dillinger mostly stole from the rich and gave to the whores.”)
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Nevertheless, by this point in his career, Depp is beyond giving the public Errol Flynn-style leading man antics. Unfortunately, he hasn”t come up with anything as bizarrely interesting as his Captain Jack Sparrow or director Ed Wood characterizations, so he turns in an understated performance better suited for an indie film. Meanwhile, as the FBI agent hunting Dillinger, Bale is given no personality whatsoever.
Depp and Bale certainly didn”t get much help from Mann, their director, who appears to have been more interested in trying out the capabilities of his latest-generation digital video cameras than in eliciting human drama.
Digital video has manifold virtues over traditional film, such as its greater sensitivity to light allowing more depth of field in daytime filming and permitting indoor and nighttime shooting to be done with less bulky artificial lights. Thus, Public Enemies might have been shot as authentically, in terms of locations and lighting, as any big budget film in history.
Do you want to shoot in the cramped stairwells of the Crown Point, IN, jail, where Dillinger bluffed his way out with a gun carved from wood and stained black with shoe polish? Sure, why not? With 35 mm film, the needed lighting would be intrusive and the big film camera, with its Stedi-Cam stabilizing apparatus, would bang into the walls. A miniature video camera, however, can provide jittery handheld footage anywhere.
Video’s most obvious vice is that it’s uglier than film.
A moresubtle problem with how Mann made Public Enemies was surmised by another IMBD reviewer calling himself Adrongardner:
My guess is that the cheapness of shooting without elaborate lighting set-ups persuaded Mann to film an overly long screenplay under the assumption that they”d figure out in the editing room how to whittle it down to a length (140 minutes) that audiences could sit through. Unfortunately, the story never came together in post-production.
And yet, in the long run, annoying disappointments like Public Enemies are part of the price that has to be paid for inventing new formulas that future Kevin Jameses can exploit.
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