Friday, July 10, 2009
Public Enemies (2009)
Public Enemies earned a lot of goodwill from me before I ever sat down to watch it. I love Michael Mann films almost as much as I love Johnny Depp ones. And Christian Bale's no slouch either. Also, since helping to write Jesse James vs. Machine Gun Kelly I've taken an interest in the crime wave of the early '30s. So, I was interested and prepared to like it.
Unfortunately, the movie plays mostly like a very nicely shot History Channel dramatization of John Dillinger's career for all the pathos it inspires. I struggled through most of the movie to find something to connect to or someone to care about. I couldn't bring myself to root for the villainous Dillinger, but Bale's emotionless portrayal of Melvin Purvis made it so that I didn't particularly care how his career went either.
Except for one scene late in the film, Public Enemies gives us nothing to even make Purvis likable, much less the guy we want to see win. We don't learn anything about his motivations. Why did he join the FBI? Why is catching Dillinger important to him? The only thing I could come up with is that Dillinger was important to Purvis' career. But like I said, who cares?
I kept thinking about Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. That was my first Costner film and only one of three that I can think of right now that I even like him in. I usually can't stand Costner and I certainly think that Bale is a much more talented actor in general, but man Costner sold me on Eliot Ness. The Untouchables was a much less complicated film than Public Enemies (I mean, it's obvious that you're not supposed to root for Capone in it), but Costner also deserves credit for giving Ness a sense of purpose. You always knew why he was doing what he was doing and you wanted to see him succeed in doing it.
Eventually, I was able to find something to relate to in Public Enemies, but it's not until towards the end of the movie. I didn't really care about Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette most of the way through. He was an overconfident bum; she was an intelligent girl, but had such low self-esteem that she repeatedly hitched her fate to Dillinger's even when she had opportunities to ditch him. I just couldn't make myself feel sorry for her.
But even though they were a bad match that probably never should've been, Depp and Marion Cotillard are great enough actors that they succeeded in making me believe that they were truly in love with each other. Deeply. I have to throw up a spoiler warning for this next part in order to tell you why I started caring. It's not a huge spoiler, but it's significant, so...
The entire movie, Dillinger keeps telling Frechette not to run out on him. At first it comes across as a threat, but eventually you start to realize that Dillinger really loves her and wants to protect her. He promises this over and over again. "Stick with me and I'll always protect you," he says. Only there comes a point where he can't do that. The ability is taken from him and it breaks his heart. Depp's performance in that scene is awesome and for the first time in the film I thought, "Oh, crap. That poor, miserable guy." Sure he'd brought it on himself and that made it hard for me to feel too badly for him. But Depp sold it for me and I wanted Dillinger to be able to make good on his promise to her.
Even so, that one moment was just a sip of water to a very thirsty man. It wasn't enough to satisfy. I came out of the movie with about as much knowledge about Dillinger and Purvis and J Edgar Hoover as I went in with and except for a couple of brief scenes I felt nothing about any of it.
There were a few other minor thrills though. It was interesting to see Dillinger and Company's changing relationship to organized crime (as represented by the character of Frank Nitti, the guy who kills Sean Connery and whom Kevin Costner throws off the roof in The Untouchables). It makes sense that the gangsters at first welcomed the robbers, but later withdrew their support when the robbers started drawing unwanted attention by the FBI.
There were also some great cameos. I didn't even recognize Emilie de Ravin as a hooker early in the film until I saw her name in the credits [Correction: Someone let me know in the comments that I misplaced de Ravin's character; she was actually a bank teller/hostage, not the prostitute I was remembering], but Leelee Sobieski was a welcome sight as Dillinger's date for that last movie at the Biograph (and Dillinger's reaction to that movie was probably the best shot scene in the whole show). Though he was barely in the movie, I could watch a whole film about Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis (who ran with Ma Barker and her gang). It was also cool to see Diana Krall as a torch singer.
Still, way too few positives for an otherwise uninspired piece of storytelling.
Three out of five Tommy guns.