Friday, July 10, 2009

Kissing, Crying, and Other Crimes: A Review of Public Enemies

In an effort to beat the heat of our air-conditioning-free house, Steve and I headed to the movies this weekend to check out the latest Johnny Depp offering, Public Enemies. We enjoyed the abundance of cool, flowing air, and I was grateful for the two-plus hours without sticky skin or wayward, bloodthirsty mosquitoes. It seemed apt that, like the characters in the 1930's set film, we were using the movie theater as an escape from the summer heat. Steve and I were kicking it old school. The only thing we lacked were the newsreels before the movie.

Public Enemies is a Michael Mann film that follows the career of the infamous John Dillinger. The film is based on a book of the same name by Bryan Burrough. I can only guess that the film is based very loosely on the book, which is published as history/non-fiction, since the movie takes great liberties with the facts. Johnny Depp plays Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, the bank robber/folk hero who robbed, charmed, and murdered his way across the Midwest in the 1930's. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, an overzealous FBI agent hot on Dillinger's trail.

I had high hopes for this film. Johnny Depp is one of my favorite actors, and I was fully prepared to enjoy his usual quirky, edgy acting and a unique interpretation of a criminal legend. Unfortunately, Public Enemies misses the mark. It's not Depp's fault, of course. His acting is always solid, and he is lovely to look at. Once again, however, Hollywood has underestimated the intelligence of the American viewer. Dillinger's folk hero status and the complications and implications of his Robin Hood persona are dumbed down to a nauseating degree. Rather than showing the poverty of the time and, therefore, the appeal of Dillinger, the film tries to make him likable by turning him into a sensitive, romantic, weepy girl. If one is to believe this film, Dillinger's actions were determined by a desire to be with the woman he loved - a woman he loved at first sight. There are way too many scenes featuring long stares and passionate embraces, at least as many as there are of gun battles and car chases. If Dillinger was really that bad of a tactician, being led solely by his overly mushy heart, then surely he would have been caught long before the famous Biograph Theater trap.

Perhaps unrelated or perhaps symptomatic of the above complaint, the movie was boring. That's it. No fancy word for it. The film was over 2 hours long, and I found myself checking my watch early on. There was no getting lost in this film, losing track of time as you live the lives of the characters. Rather, there were too many characters, too many shootouts, and lots of muddled confusion. Most of the criminals were too similar in appearance and mannerism to be differentiated one from another, with the possible exception of Baby Face Nelson who was actually the only character I found remotely interesting. Crazy is always interesting.

As for shootouts, well, there were plenty. Almost every corpse in the movie got that way from acute lead poisoning. While machine guns and car chases were certainly an important part of Dillinger's crime spree, I was able to grasp that after a couple battles. I didn't need one every five minutes to remind me of his violent lifestyle. In fact, it felt like the writer/director/whoever's making these choices overused shootouts in an attempt to build suspense and excitement in an otherwise directionless film. They seemed unaware of the adage that more is sometimes much, much less. Any power these violent scenes might have given the film were weakened by their ubiquity. As the film neared its end, I started hoping that a stray bullet would hit Dillinger so I wouldn't have to sit there and wait for the Biograph shooting.

Not everything about the film was bad. The look of the piece was right, and the acting was solid. If only the dialogue written had been worthy of the actors' skills. The music was mostly of the period so it was evocative. There was one exception of the fine acting assessment, however. Christian Bale. Though the audience was spared the gravelly voiced growl that he featured in The Dark Knight, they weren't exactly treated to an Oscar-worthy performance. Bale's portrayal of G-Man, Melvin Purvis, was one-dimensional at best as he followed the Keanu Reeves school of acting: monotone delivery sans any sort of facial expression. While the filmmakers were obviously pushing the idea of Purvis as a soulless puppet of J. Edgar Hoover, Bale failed to pursue any opportunities to give Purvis any sort of depth.

So if you're a screenwriter, director, or producer who's always dreamed of making the ultimate 1930's crime drama, the slot is still wide open. Give America a Dillinger they can sink their teeth into, not some modern, misunderstood guy who's not afraid to cry and spoon. Give me Robin Hood in a suit, tie, vest, and overcoat. I want a chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, devil-may-care, Clark Gable-meets-Errol Flynn-meets-Jack Nicholson guy. I don't go to a gangster movie to feel warm fuzzies, so please, keep the canoodling to a minimum.

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