Saturday, July 4, 2009

Gunned Down

(Warning: Spoilers follow.)

Michael Mann's pickup techniques don't work as well for me as they do for the stars of his movies. Years ago, after seeing Heat, I acted all gruff and paranoid with a friendly woman trying to strike up a conversation about a book I was reading, and she bolted. Another time, I recalled Daniel Day-Lewis's heartfelt words in The Last of the Mohicans and promised my girlfriend, "No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!" but she ditched me in an Office Max. And there I was the other night at a jazz establishment, when I spied a luminous half-French half-Native-American coat-check gal across the room. I followed Johnny Depp's example in Public Enemies to no avail: when I tried ordering her around and demanded she come with me, she laughed derisively; when I barged in on her at work and beat up a guy who had the gall to ask for his coat, she called the cops; and when I told her that I like "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you," I should have stopped there before accidentally segueing into Kevin Costner's big speech in Bull Durham. It's easy to get the two confused.

But then Mann's movies are never about reality (except for The Insider, ironically his best film.) Like Tarantino, he's a cinema junkie fascinated by the stimuli created by artifice (especially, but not exclusively, screen violence); unlike QT, however, he's not too interested in exploring (or exploding) the border between the real world and that artifice. A Mann film plays by its own rules and is set entirely within its own universe. Viewers who can give themselves over to it find his movies overwhelmingly hypnotic and sensual. Those who don't -- like me, at least, for his latest -- might find Public Enemies a snooze.

I confess to struggling to stay awake for roughly the first two-thirds of this 140-minute movie, despite subject matter that has strong pulp appeal. Our first glimpse of John Dillinger (Depp) is of the notorious gangster breaking in to a prison in order to break his gang out. Our introduction to the unfortunately named Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) features the intrepid Fed shooting Pretty Boy Floyd in the woods. This is a potentially good set-up for the kind of parallel-track cops-and-robbers saga that Mann pulled off in Heat, only imagine Al Pacino's role reduced and Robert De Niro's enlarged and you have an idea of which character is emphasized at the expense of the other here. Even less distinctive are Dillinger's gang of thugs and Purvis's team of agents. In Heat, Mann employed an effective shorthand to add color to De Niro and Pacino's respective crews. In Public Enemies, the only two semi stand-outs are Stephen Graham's psychotic Baby Face Nelson and Stephen Lang's taciturn Agent Winstead. Lang, who has one of those great faces Mann loves to linger on, makes an impression despite possibly less than fifty words of dialogue. Nearly all the other players on both sides of the law (except for an unrecognizable Billy Crudup as a blandish J. Edgar Hoover and Bill Camp as a Frank Nitti whose semi-respectability would seem even more a departure from the ludicrous cartoon version in De Palma's The Untouchables without the unfortunate Hitler mustache) aren't individualized and come across as interchangeable with each other in their suits and fedoras and tommy-guns as the identically-attired soldiers in the first two or three episodes of Band of Brothers.

If nothing else, it's a relief to see Depp as Dillinger, and not just because he wears a fedora well. While not a great performance, it's still light-years from the fey bullshit the actor shovels as Jack Sparrow (enough, please) or in encores as Tim Burton's tortured-martyred-misunderstood-artist stand-in. (We know, Tim: you have scissors for hands. Get over it.) The last time Depp portrayed a gangster -- actually an undercover cop pretending to be one -- was in the terrific Donnie Brasco (which also incidentally featured Pacino's last truly committed performance). Unfortunately here, Depp doesn't get the chance to wade in waters nearly as deep. Even when wooing his favorite coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, faring better than Gong Li in Miami Vice but worse than Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans or Amy Brenneman in Heat), he's no more than glittering surface; and Purvis is even less, though no fault of the acting playing him. At the risk of dimestore psychology, I interpreted Bale's meltdown on the Terminator: Salvation set as a cry for help from a Method actor committing himself to yet another role unworthy of his talents. (My first reaction was, You already have Batman to guarantee your marketability; why waste your time with this piece of crap?) Possibly Bale saw Public Enemies as a chance to work with a major filmmaker without the pressure of a true leading role weighing on his shoulders. He seems content to surrender the spotlight this time around (not only to Depp but also Lang, who figures more prominently at the climax); what Bale needs now is a role that loosens him up into enjoying acting again (and I'm not sure working with the thuggish David O. Russell on the director's next project, the aptly-named The Fighter, is the way to go). 

Public Enemies comes to life in the final act, beginning with a crisply staged nighttime ambush and culminating in the gunning down of Dillinger outside a movie theater playing a Clark Gable mob picture. It's in the latter sequence that Mann finally focuses on what should have been his subject all along -- how Dillinger saw himself as more of a movie-star than a criminal. (There's a hint of this in an amusing earlier scene, also set in a movie theater, when a warning to be on the lookout for Dillinger airs before the start of a movie, and then audience looks left and right like attendees at a tennis match.) Yet because Mann never distinguishes between the real world and the world of cinema, there are no layers of meaning, no tension, no sense of urgency that develops.

The most recent of Michael Mann's movies that I enjoyed was the witty and entertaining Collateral, featuring an undervalued performance from Tom Cruise -- who, as a graying hitman, contorted his gleaming smile into shark's teeth -- that was a far more incisive deconstruction of celebrity stardom. (It's no accident that Mann had Cruise's villain killed on a subway train, a mode of transport that played a key role in the film that made him famous, Risky Business.) Miami Vice, though, was a visually arresting yet narratively tedious adaptation of the 80s television series; and I found Public Enemies a hollow echo of Heat, which was in itself a remake of Mann's original made-for-TV movie L.A. Takedown. Hitchcock and other auteurs have proven that the results can be fascinating when an obsessive filmmaker repeats himself; but with Public Enemies Mann is repeating himself in a genre that's already been done to death. He isn't offering a fresh spin on his subject, beyond using fancy digital cameras with mixed results (great for evening shots; less striking in the harsh light of day). Public Enemies is just more of the same macho posturing in a man's world, with women who, unlike the cunning and resourceful female protagonists in Tarantino's Death Proof and Jackie Brown, are confined to the sidelines rather than used by the director to challenge his own (and the audience's) assumptions, to upset the status quo. I admire Mann, as I do almost any filmmaker, for having grand obsessions; I just wish I shared them.


Hokahey said...

Well-written. The opener is hilarious. If you care to check out my review over at Little Worlds, you will see that we agree on a lot. I felt detached from most of the movie, and I don't think Mann added anything new to the genre. I agree that Lang was excellent. We probably disagree the most on Cotillard. She drew me more into her character and her experiences than Depp did with Dillinger.

Jason Bellamy said...

This is a thoughtful (not to mention entertaining) review. I can really feel the push-pull you feel in wanting to connect with every Mann film but not quite being able to get there.

Though I didn't find the first two-thirds snooze-worthy, I do think Mann's chief mistake of this film is developing the Dillinger character in the third act. Too much has happened by then. Early development can carry through an entire picture. Late development doesn't work retroactively. (That said, I plan to see this film a second time, and I figure I'll like the first half more, having already experienced the second half.)

A few other comments ...

* My memory of Donnie Brasco was similar to yours until a year or two ago when I got the DVD for $10 and watched it and discovered it was laugh-out-loud pathetic -- particularly Pacino's performance. If you haven't seen it in a while, might want to give it another look.

* I, too, was relieved to see Bale content to stay in the margins. I had high hopes for him as an actor until two films worth of Batman snarling followed by his crazed meltdown that had me convinced he was on a runaway train heading in the wrong direction. This picture gives me a little hope. But, you're right, he needs to choose his roles well.

* Can't say I'd ever connected Cruise's death to Risky Business. That's an interesting thought, though it might just be a lucky allusion.

* I don't know what your problem is with the ladies. Whenever some woman asks me what I'm reading and I say it's a book about metals, she hops on my lap without invitation. Works every time.

Craig said...

Hokahey -- Sounds like we're on the same page. I will agree that Cotillard got a lot of mileage out of nothing to work with. I've never seen her in anything before, including her big Oscar win, but she impressed me. She also bears a striking resemblance to Eva Green, at least in that red dress.

Jason --

I don't know what your problem is with the ladies. Whenever some woman asks me what I'm reading and I say it's a book about metals, she hops on my lap without invitation. Works every time.

Another time, in another scene directly out of "Last of the Mohicans," I just stood silently and stared directly for a minute or two at a certain lady I knew on a professional basis, because we all know how much they like that. "What are you looking at?" she demanded. "I'm looking at you, miss," I replied in my best Daniel-Day. But Miss Branigan still told me I had to go out to recess and play.

Mary said...

The Girl and I just saw this today. Both of us had issues with the shaky cinematography. A majority of shots just felt too close to the actors, and we were sitting in the back row. I'm a Depp fan, but I agree he didn't really stretch his legs in this role. He has some character traits that show up more in roles like this, particularly the hand in the hair thing. Christian Bale might have been invisible. The Girl questions his acting as this is the first thing she's seen him in. Overall, I enjoyed it, and liked the soundtrack absence during gunfights to give the violence more impact. I'm a sucker for an outlaw flick.

Craig said...

Good to hear from you, Mary. Mann is in an experimental phase with his digital camerawork, which started with "Collateral," continued thru "Miami Vice" (the movie) and now "Public Enemies." Still getting the kinks out, if you ask me, though I thought the night scenes were evocative. But like you, Lordy, am I getting tired of shaky hand-held cameras. There's something to be said for just planting the mother down and shooting a scene without fuss or muss.

"The Girl" is pretty much the female lead in all of Mann's films, with varying degrees of nuance. I don't know much about Cotillard, but I enjoyed watching her. She is, as they say, an interesting camera subject.

Craig said...

My memory of Donnie Brasco was similar to yours until a year or two ago when I got the DVD for $10 and watched it and discovered it was laugh-out-loud pathetic -- particularly Pacino's performance. If you haven't seen it in a while, might want to give it another look.

At your suggestion, I just saw this again and think it's great. Pacino plays a character who is pathetic (for a refreshing change), but that's not the same as giving a pathetic performance. Still one of the better mob movies of recent years. What didn't you like about it?

Jason Bellamy said...

What didn't you like about it?

Pretty much everything, I'm afraid. The second time around (as in, second viewing ever) I couldn't get into any of it, much as I tried. I stared at the TV confused, saying in my head: "But I'm supposed to like this! You used to be good! What happened?"

It's been a while now, but the low point, I believe, was that moment on the boat where Pacino's character essentially gives Depp's the 'Talk to the hand ...' routine. 'I can't understand you anymore...' blah, blah, blah.

Hmmm. Maybe I need to give it one more look. I mean, that DVD is just sitting there...

Craig said...

It's been a while now, but the low point, I believe, was that moment on the boat where Pacino's character essentially gives Depp's the 'Talk to the hand ...' routine. 'I can't understand you anymore...' blah, blah, blah.

You're cracking me up! Maybe *I* need to watch it again.

Craig said...

I've been remiss in touting Steven Santos's excellent new blog, The Fine Cut, with a review of "Public Enemies" that's worth checking out.