Friday, July 3, 2009

Public Enemies: Alluring villainy

Public Enemies (2009) • View trailer for Public Enemies
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.09
Buy DVD: Public Enemies • Buy Blu-Ray: Public Enemies (Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

The difficult trick is to make John Dillinger somehow appealing  or, at the very least, interesting  without sanitizing one of America's most notoriously vicious criminals.

Trust Johnny Depp to unerringly walk that extremely fine line.
Judging by Johnny Depp's portrayal of John Dillinger in this film, one would
think the notorious bank robber disliked killing people, and did so only with
great reluctance. History suggests otherwise, but Depp makes us believe that
this guy has a semblance of conscience.

Public Enemies, thanks to Depp's superbly nuanced performance as Dillinger, belongs in the company of Bonnie and Clyde, as one of Hollywood's great pop-culture portraits of American crime. Indeed, director Michael Mann's Public Enemies has much in common with Bonnie and Clyde, which was billed with the lurid tag line "They're young ... they're in love ... and they kill people."

Back in 1967, director Arthur Penn's unexpectedly gory crime saga was a trend-setter, foreshadowing the culture of violence that soon would pervade Hollywood. Its unsettling blend of casual brutality and glamorous star power  Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were "it" at the time  has been duplicated with equal panache by Mann, with the dazzling celebrity wattage handled just as effectively by Depp and co-star Marion Cotillard, fresh from her Academy Award win for La Vie en Rose.

Sadly, the violence in Public Enemies is nothing new, with bloody deaths by Tommy-gun a frequent occupational hazard for good guys and bad guys alike, as this narrative  scripted by Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman and Mann, from the book by Bryan Burrough  moves inexorably toward Dillinger's well-known date with destiny at Chicago's Biograph movie theater on July 22, 1934.

Aside from Depp's excellent work, this film's distinctive style comes courtesy of Mann, who orchestrates the carnage with the same snap and panache that made 2004's Collateral such a visceral experience. The difference is that we don't really have a virtuous and principled protagonist to root for  Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis is a bit too chill to be sympathetic  although you'll no doubt need to resist that bewitching gleam in Depp's eye.

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for this ability to "trick" audiences into identifying with his many villains; we unconsciously wanted Robert Walker Jr. to reach the dropped cigarette lighter with which he planned to frame the hero in Strangers on a Train, just as we hoped Barry Foster would successfully pry his distinctive tie pin  which might identify him to the pursuing police  from the rigor-frozen fingers of his recent victim, in Frenzy.

Mann and Depp accomplish the same feat, as Purvis and his fellow FBI agents repeatedly close on Dillinger and his associates: Despite knowing Dillinger's eventual fate, we keep hoping that he'll survive this skirmish, and then that one, and then the next ... because, darn it, Depp makes the guy too interesting to lose.

Mann's film begins in 1933, somewhere in the middle of Dillinger's 14-month career, as he cleverly breaks some of his buddies out of prison: a feat accomplished with frustrating ease because of the police corruption that allowed countless blind eyes to be turned. Indeed, Dillinger is able to swan about Chicago night clubs with impunity, knowing full well that he's essentially untouchable.

This sort of behavior was anathema to J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, giving this gentleman a much more respectful reading than he probably deserves), who saw his fledgling FBI as the solution to the problem posed by gun-toting thugs such as Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson and many others.

If this film's script has a flaw, it's the absence of historical context. We get only passing references to the novelty of an enforcement agency granted permission to cross state lines while pursuing criminals: an ability, prompted by the likes of Dillinger, that we take for granted today.

And the script completely ignores the reason for Dillinger's apparently bewildering popularity with the general public, which regarded him as a rough-and-tumble folk hero. At this, the height of the Depression, banks  and those who owned them  were viewed with the contempt we now give grotesquely overpaid corporate CEOs.

Banks were the true villains: They foreclosed on people's homes and lives.

Dillinger only robbed banks  he consciously resisted image-destroying behavior such as kidnapping (or so the public believed)  and he never took money from the customers within the banks when the dirty deed went down. The down-trodden public couldn't help but adore him, even if various cops and bank security guards got shot and killed in the process; heck, they probably were corrupt anyway.

Depp makes the most of this duality, his rakish charm operating at full force. Pull up an archive photograph of the actual Dillinger, and you'll see the same contemptuous sneer that Depp wields with disarming force throughout this film. He and Purvis have only one casual face-to-face during the course of this film, as the FBI's new "shining star" regards the (only temporarily) incarcerated Dillinger with smug satisfaction. Purvis thinks he has won; Dillinger knows better.

We do, as well; although Bale is a champ when it comes to amused superiority, he runs a distant second to Depp's mocking disdain. Bale's Purvis loses this stare-down  although he doesn't even realize it!  and, as a result, we know that Dillinger will be back on the streets soon enough.

This battle of unequals rages throughout the film. Although Bale is more compelling here than in Terminator: Salvation, his portrayal still turns Purvis into a Great Stone Face; it's difficult to discern the man's emotions, whether stalking a fleeing thug or, much later, showing compassion to a woman being interrogated. We know only that Purvis is a crack shot; we never get a sense of why the media branded him "the Clark Gable of the FBI."

Bale simply isn't charming enough to warrant that label.

(The same problem plagued Kevin Costner in 1987's The Untouchables. Although the nominal hero, his acting limitations made him by far the least interesting character in the film.)

Watch, in great contrast, the way Depp curls his lip at random moments, as Dillinger is faced with either a bad choice or an unpalatable situation: Pages of dialogue are saved by the well-timed shading Depp puts into his expressions, as we perceive the annoyance, analysis and rapid decision-making that takes place in Dillinger's head, all in a few seconds.

Cotillard is equally fascinating as Billie Frechette, the woman quickly swept up by Dillinger's single-minded dedication to making her "his girl." This is a tough role: We must believe that Frechette isn't some naive idiot with no common sense, in order for her to remain sympathetic.

Cotillard meets the challenge; her Billie enters this relationship with eyes wide open, fully comprehending the obvious peril. As she explains during their first night together, more matter-of-factly than bitterly, Frechette's life has been deadeningly ordinary, her likely future more of the same. With Dillinger, she sees an intensity of emotion  however brief it might be  that could feed a lifetime's worth of hunger.

"I don't want to sleep," she insists later, during the wee hours of a much more dangerous morning. She doesn't want to miss a moment of their time together.

While Cotillard certainly sells Frechette's willingness to embark on this relationship, her best scene comes during a far less pleasant encounter with the FBI; despite being beaten down and cruelly abused, her eyes blaze, her jaw sets and she erupts with a molten fury that makes us believe  truly believe  that Billie never, ever would betray the man she loves.

Production designer Nathan Crowley persuasively re-creates the Depression-era setting in Chicago and several other cities; costume designer Colleen Atwood doesn't miss a thread with her equally authentic outfits.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential, The Insider) employs a film stock that emphasizes the period setting, and he also does marvelous things with shadows: a handy talent, since Mann loves staging scenes in the dark of night, with his actors illuminated only by streetlights, moonlight or dim hallway bulbs.

Elliot Goldenthal contributes a suitably ominous score enlivened occasionally by period pop songs such as "Bye Bye Blackbird," which becomes this story's ironic signature tune ... and yes, that's Diana Krall crooning it, in one nightclub scene.

I'm not sure Public Enemies can be considered entertainment, but it's certainly compelling and absolutely never dull.

One rather doubts Dillinger ever was this spellbinding, but  as with Beatty's take on Clyde Barrow  we must bow to the mantra established by John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

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