Sunday, 25 October 2009

Public Enemies - Dir. Michael Mann

John Herbert Dillinger is still one of the most recognisable names that emerged from the ‘Public Enemy Era’ during the Great Depression in early 1930’s America. Some say he was a dangerous criminal, a sociopath who lived to simply kill and rob. Others admire his Robin Hood-esque quality of taking from the capitalist institutions during a period of economic crisis. Michael Mann paints Dillinger (Johnny Depp) in his latest action-blockbuster ‘Public Enemies’ as a man with pride, self-respect and principles – he “never leaves a man behind” – but adds little more to that characterisation and that is the principle fault with a very enjoyable film.

The film starts in 1933 as the audience are thrown straight into action typical Michael Mann style, as John Dillinger and his gang orchestrate an elaborate plan to break-out their remaining gang members still held up in prison. Following the break-out and a resulting shoot-out in which Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich (James Russo) is killed, we are shown the other side of the law as FBI Agent Melvin Pervis (Christian Bale) hunts down famous Depression-era criminal Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). The film then primarily revolves around Agent Pervis’s pursuit of the elusive bank robber and romantic. Minor plot points pertaining to the time period are covered briefly in-between including an incredibly strong performance from Billy Crudup as the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, who is constantly fighting for further recognition of the Bureau’s activities and power within the American system of law and justice.

Depp, as always, brings to life the character he is playing as he uses the little characterisation he has been given to turn Dillinger into a womanizer, a man with principles, but at the same time a human being who doesn’t mind spilling blood for the greater good – the bigger picture. However, the substantial effort Depp places into the role of Dillinger cannot salvage it from the little depth Mann chooses to explore in Dillinger and the surrounding cast, which can be attributed primarily to the fact that with so many different characters involved in the minor side-stories in the film there simply isn’t enough time for Mann to expose the main characters in depth. Yet, despite this major flaw in the film, Mann still manages to bring his exciting, and startlingly realistic action-set-pieces to life.

When the Dillinger clan is cornered in a cabin in the woods by the rabid law-enforcement officers looking for Mr Public-Enemy Number One, a brilliantly shot shoot-out takes place between the two sides of the law in which every window pane of glass broken and every empty shell-casing disposed of is startling photographed in such beautiful realism that it places there and removes you from simply being a impartial audience member to one of men holding a tommy-gun and firing aimlessly for your life. As we have come to get used to, Mann takes advantage of his skill for shooting violent-action oriented scenes, whether it is a shoot-out, a murder or the many bank robberies that we see Dillinger commit, and brings the audience closer to the action happening just in front of them. Aside from the cinematography a solid soundtrack, including Otis Taylor’s brilliant Ten Million Slaves, seems to compliment the 1930’s depression-era almost perfectly and is guaranteed to get you tapping your foot to the beat.

Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ is a competent crime-drama that contains just enough exciting set-pieces and charm to win over most audiences for the two hours it is on-screen, but it is by no means a flawless piece of cinema. The lack of characterisation is a serious flaw in Mann’s well-layered film, while the fact that the film also plays around with history and has certain important events occurring before they actually did also takes away from the historical accurate nature of the film.
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