Jul 4, 2009
Some American film critics love to love two film directors that I find grossly overrated. One is Clint Eastwood and the other one is Michael Mann. Of the latter, who is much better than Eastwood, I have liked Manhunter, which was the first Hannibal Lecter movie, Ali, which is underrated as biopics go, The Insider, a decent conventional film, and Collateral, which was a stylish, entertaining, modern noir. I like his movies grudgingly; I always find them dry and unsatisfying. And I hated Heat.
To judge from Mnaohla Dargis's review in the New York Times, you'd think Mann's latest movie, Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp, is an American masterpiece. I was very disappointed: lots of slick style; not enough substance.
Public Enemies is a gangster biopic about the legendary John Dillinger. It doesn't work as a biopic (not enough bio) and it doesn't work as a gangster film (not enough thrills).
I think there are two reasons for this. One, as much as I like Johnny Depp, this is not the role for him. It is impossible to believe for a minute, despite his honest and restrained (and maddeningly mumbling) performance, that this man with the most perfect face in the history of the movies is the daredevil sociopath that Dillinger was. The casting of Christian Bale as his FBI nemesis does not help matters. I am still trying to figure out his accent, which sounds like a mix between Louisiana and Romania. But I don't blame the actors. They seem to have been directed to be no one in particular. So much more could have been made out of Dillinger's crazy narcissism, yet it is hard to understand why he does what he does. The only sign of life in this film is a brilliant turn by Peter Gerety as Dillinger's lawyer, in a courtroom scene where he chews the scenery and resucitates the movie.
Two, the source material is fascinating, but somehow, the way it is written, it is not interesting enough. The dialog is forgettable. The actors are ciphers. The love story is none too credible. Everything seems too cold and composed and bloodless. There are plenty of cinematic acrobatics, but no real flair, no panache, no pizzazz. Compare this leaden, joyless film with Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, not to mention Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfathers or the Gangster films of yore. It is dead on arrival.
Now, that is not to say that it doesn't have its moments. I was trying to understand what the point of it was in this day and age. Sure, Dillinger is the great anti-hero that we need to cheer us up now that the robbers ARE the banks. In this movie the bad guys are no worse than the good guys, whose leader is none other than J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), standing in for Dick Cheney, with Christian Bale standing in for George Bush.
There are two instances of torture in this film. Both are shocking and both are committed by federal agents. One is against a wounded person in a hospital and the other one is against a woman. Quite plainly, they are instances of what our government today euphemistically calls enhanced interrogation. This gives the film a raison d'etre.
Dillinger is shown almost as a historical curiosity in his own time, strangely enough, as a man of certain principle, of a quaint individualism. At one point, even the mafia refuses to have anything to do with him (provide him with shelter, arms, whores, etc) because he's bad for business. What he makes in one very dangerous day, they make every day over the phone with gambling rackets. So, he is a heroic sociopath, fighting against both legal and illegal institutions, all alone.
Dillinger loved the movies. He loved that the movies were about him. So he goes to see a gangster flick with Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with this movie: they don't make them like they used to.