Thursday, 9 July 2009

Public Enemies

‘I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars….and you. What more do you need to know?’

What indeed. Uttered by an effortlessly charismatic Johnny Depp in the role of public enemy number one, John Dillinger, a similar pithy epithet could be levelled at the whole of Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies. After all, what we're presented with is a historical biopic that seems to skimp on the bio, the history and anything approaching detail.

Ah but those familiar with Mann’s back-catalogue will have seen this coming all along. Enemies is not a historical biopic. In fact, it’s more of a companion piece to Mann’s classic De Niro-Pacino starrer Heat, uncannily so.

It’s 1933; with the Depression biting the American Midwest hard (lending the film a helpful topicality), Dillinger is a successful bank robber making a mockery of the justice system while becoming something of an outlaw hero to the average Joes on the street.

Keen to nip criminal enterprise in the bud, self serving J. Edgar Hoover (a heavily latexed Billy Crudup), instigates a new FBI task force designed to hunt Dillinger down. The man spearheading the operation is dapper Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), killer of Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). With limited resources but steely resolve, Purvis becomes utterly devoted to catching his man.

Dillinger meanwhile is enjoying the fringe benefits of his dangerous labours, remarking to one of his men, ‘We’re having too much fun today to think about tomorrow’. But, as fate would have it, he finds love with a luminous coat-check girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and soon difficult choices have to be made…

Stop when this sounds familiar? Yes, Public Enemies is Heat for the Prohibition era. Director Mann has always marked his movies with singular themes and motifs but Enemies could have been cut from the same celluloid as Heat. Philosophical ruminations on life and death? Candid conversations with a loved one about finding future redemption in an ill-defined destination? A hunter who lives and breathes to catch his quarry? All are present (ideas having also been shared in Last of the Mohicans and Collateral to name but a few).

What makes it fascinating (and prevents it becoming a mere clone) is the combination of the period setting (all chrome cars, bowler hats and Tommy guns) and the striking hi-def cinematography. It is at once a historical film and a film made by Michael Mann (stunning images like a gangster’s muzzle fire illuminating his bullet-ridden body could only come from this most macho of directors).

The clichés and imagery are therefore in place to suggest a standard crime drama but Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti have bolder things to suggest with their pacy, hand-held lensing. It’s almost a documentary snapshot of the time, filtered through the director’s unmistakable sensibility. Let it also be said no-one films (or hears) a gunfight like Mann does: the central forest-based set piece rivals Heat’s street-as-war zone for sheer blow-your-socks-off power.

There are flaws. It’s somewhat too long and rambling, seeming to end about 10 times before it actually does. Bale also suffers with a one dimensional cipher character (although it’s a much, much better, more humane performance than his mechanical turn in Terminator Salvation). Purists will also no doubt have a field day picking out the historical inaccuracies.

Some will also suggest that more focus should go on Dillinger’s gang, especially the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, channelling his vicious This is England energy). But that would be to miss the point. What’s in the background, people, incidents, places, are mere buttresses for Mann’s central relationship between Depp’s Dillinger (refreshingly absent of the actor's usual eccentric quirks) and the outstanding Cotillard as Billie Frechette. When they talk candidly in the dark to the strains of Elliot Goldenthal’s moody score, you almost want them to reach their own little paradise, so electric is the chemistry. Just don’t mention Heat. Oh….

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