'Public Enemies': Michael Mann's Mobster Waxworks
TERRY GROSS, host:
John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Melvin Purvis, G-men names from Chicago in the 1920s and 30s that have become the stuff of legend, especially Hollywood legend. They're back in the new action and love story "Public Enemies," directed by Michael Mann. The film stars Johnny Depp, as Dillinger, and Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The most powerful emotion in "Public Enemies" is Johnny Depp's love of being a movie star and getting to wear wide-brim fedoras and long black coats and spats and firing Tommy guns at G-men. And I ask you, my friends, who wouldn't love that? It's the coolest fantasy ever. And Depp is happily in sync with his role. His John Dillinger loves being a celebrity, too, and loves that he can hide among the people who think he's a folk hero. At the start of the film, Dillinger and his cohorts break out of prison and soon he's dressed to the nines at a nightclub and thunderstruck by the sight of a luscious, soft-curled Marion Cotillard.
Cotillard's Billie Frechette joins him at his table, smitten back in a way that's highly credible, even if her American accent sinks somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
(Soundbite of movie, "Public Enemies")
Ms. MARION COTILLARD (Actor): (As Billie Frechette) What is it exactly you do for a living?
Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As John Dillinger) I'm John Dillinger. I rob banks. That's where all people here put their money.
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) Why did you tell me that? You could've made up a story.
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) No, I wouldn't lie to you.
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) That's a serious thing to say to a girl you've just met.
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) I know you.
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) Well, I don't know you. I haven't been any place.
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) Well, some of the places I've been, it's hot. Where I'm going, a whole lot better. You want to come along?
Ms. COTILLARD: (As Billie Frechette) Boy, you're in a hurry.
Mr. DEPP: (As John Dillinger) If you were looking at what I'm looking at, you'd be in a hurry too.
EDELSTEIN: Wow, what a comeback line. Obviously, Depp's Dillinger is a romantic, which is what will bring him down. Former gang members tell him the age of the independent operator is ending, soon to be replaced by coldhearted syndicates. If "Public Enemies" director Michael Mann has a moral point of view on Dillinger's bank robberies — which get a lot of people killed — I couldn't discern it. His central motif is a retread of the one he peddled in "Heat," that Dillinger and Christian Bale's FBI agent Melvin Purvis, though on opposite sides, have a code that's distinct from those of their respective cohorts.
Dillinger doesn't shoot anyone in cold blood as opposed to Stephen Graham's Baby Face Nelson, who cackles at his carnage. And Purvis offers a contrast to fellow cops who torture suspects, and most of all to the power-grabbing, image-mongering FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who's played by Billy Crudup in an astounding transformation, fatted and vaguely effeminate. "Public Enemies" doesn't really have a theme. But it has a tone and a tempo and a look — a palette that's fascinatingly weird. Mann shot it on high-def video, which is subtly different than film.
Branches in a forest at night are so sharp they're like etchings on the screen, while the air itself seems thick, the perspective shortened. I think this look was better suited to Mann's recent "Miami Vice" movie, with its druggy, tropical haze, but the shootouts here work like gangbusters. The camera offers only limited vantages, and there's an eerie disjunction between the over-bright muzzle fire and the guns' muffled pops, like distant firecrackers. High-def does have one distracting downside. You can detect the male actors' pancake make-up, which is especially unfortunate in the case of Bale, who now looks, as well as acts, like a wax dummy.
"Public Enemies" has lots of incidental pleasures, gorgeous costumes, an electrifying comeuppance for Baby Face Nelson, a second escape from prison that's ingeniously staged. But it's only Depp's goofy sense of fun that keeps it from seeming inert. After Michael Jackson's untimely, though perhaps inevitable, death, I re-watched his music video of the song "Smooth Criminal." It's a gangster fantasia with rat-tat-tat, staccato hoofing and a touch of "Guys and Dolls." It's everything "Public Enemies" isn't: madly inventive, genre-bending, at once a study in urban paranoia and a passionate tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner.
The video reminds you why the gangster became a pop-culture existential hero. Under threat, Jackson seizes the space. Michael Mann's vision lacks that inner spark. He's made a period gangster museum piece — it doesn't dance.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
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