Pros: Period detail
Cons: Story, Acting, Cinematography
Public Enemies (2009)
I saw Public Enemies today at my local AMC theater and have to admit it had its moments, but overall the shots missed the target.
Public Enemies is a production with Michael Mann at the helm so I had better hopes for it but once I saw Christian Bale was a major player, I had my doubts. Christian Bale has been a big flash in the pan in every performance I've seen him in and this is no different.
Johnny Depp I had seen do a few good performances but when I saw the epic length running time of 2:31 minutes I knew the movie would not be much good because the screenplay was not polished enough to keep it moving and get us through the various developments to the real meat of the story line - the deaths of Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger. Why Mann chose to include all those episodes is a mystery but it added a lot of convolutions and characters that just muddled up the story. Not only that, but the deaths were not in accordance with the actual deaths as recorded at the time so there goes the historical significance angle.
I am a big fan of the gangster genre as established in the 1930s with Warner Bros making many memorable movies starring Jimmy Cagney and Edward G Robinson. These films all ran 80 or 90 minutes, tops, and had far more impact and people pleasing action apiece than the current 2 ½ hour Public Enemies that is trying to introduce the genre again, to the IPod generation.
The story concerns the later stages of midwestern bank robber John Dillinger's criminal escapades when he was Public Enemy # 1 during the early 1930's.
The film has great period detail including old classic cars, clothes, weapons, and art deco building interiors but loses its way in performances that really lack heart and the hand held camera sequences really lose a lot of detail during the action sequences. People come to gangster movies for the action and when it is about as steady as footage shot by an arthritic old man with St Vitus' dance that is really a downer. Somebody needs to tell Michael Mann about the steady cam and actual workable camera set-ups and multiple angle coverage so all things can be captured and you don't have to watch a single shaky camera stutter for five minutes or so for a single shootout that actually takes about half a minute in real time but here goes on and on and on. There are also lots of takes that don't match up with the takes surrounding it making an impression of sloppiness that should not be in a film today.
The research was obviously done by a roomful of chimpanzees when you compare some of the happenings with the historical record, but apparently that is OK with audiences today. The story itself is from a book written by Bryan Burrough and adapted for the screen by Michael Mann et al, so whether the chimps worked for the original book author or with Michael Mann, error crept in and the story was about as true as most fairy tales and big parts of it are flat made up. I just like to know if what I'm watching happened or not if it claims to be historic. I'm funny like that.
The actors Depp and Bale are only adequate and the supporting cast is for the most part inadequate. Marion Cotillard is the female lead but she is pretty forgettable. A few players like Stephen Lang do cross over and do well but mostly they are forgettable and hardly even stick in your mind. They are not well identified in the storyline so I think somebody who doesn't even know the general storyline will be totally lost from the get go. I do know the story and I was not able to keep it straight while watching this.
The old gangster actors like Cagney or Bogart could build an emotional bridge with the viewer such that they cared about what happened to the protagonist but that emotional attachment was sadly lacking here. Johnny Depp with his goofy mustache was just not drawing me to him, nor do I suspect he would draw most viewers with his performance. I am sure Bale failed miserably also as the tight lipped G-Man Melvin Purvis.
If you really wanted to see what happened to John Dillinger in the 1930's there is a great movie by John Milius starring Warren Oates and Ben Johnson that gives a far more entertaining look at the career of Public Enemy #1.