Friday, 10 July 2009

Public Enemies - A Review

Dir: Michael Mann
Star: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard

Comparisons with 1995's Heat are inevitable with this film. One of Michael Mann's most acclaimed films, a crime saga with two big A-list actors playing big characters on opposite sides of the law who only actually meet in one scene. All of that still applies, including hopefully the acclaim, however Public Enemies is also a lot more.

Set in 1933, Public Enemies is set in the midst of the great crime sprees that precipitated the formation of the FBI. It's a true story adapted from a book by Bryan Burroughs and amongst all the cops, agents, gangsters and bank robbers, it follows John Dillinger (Depp) as the man who stood out the most. Dillinger was suave, cool and played on it all.

He was a media icon and a bank robber. He watched his headlines and played up to the press. Remember this was in the Depression, everybody was angry with the fat cat bankers and then, as now, the capitalist temple of the bank was seen as ripe for defilement.

Dillinger was a poster boy of crime, seen as an almost Robin Hood kind of figure and Depp is the perfect man to play him. I can't think of any other actor who combines the same sense of "live-for-the-moment" fun, with suave self-assured cool in quite the way Depp, and indeed Dillinger, does.

Melvin Purvis is the F.B.I agent who heads the task force to bring in Dillinger who, by this time, is Public Enemy #1. Played by Bale, the character doesn't have as much to do as Dillinger and although Bale handles it well, bringing across an air of confidence, sometime frustration and calm (also it’s nice to see him acting without the Bat-voice for change - it really was too much in Terminator), he never gets the emotional sweep that Depp is able to provide.

Depp is a brilliant actor, even without mascara and a funny hat, and films like this one prove it. If he's not up for some awards for this film then there better be some damned good movies still to come before the next award season.

The 1930's setting is well carried off and Mann's techniques, though jarring slightly with the aesthetic of the film and creating a sense of anachronism (the shaky-cam in shoot outs and cool electric guitar music over the bank robbery entrances spring to mind) they only add to the film, emphasising the sense of showman ship and cool. The shootouts in particular look reminiscent of footage taken on real shootouts in urban Iraq, very raw footage and sound, with a low slightly wavering camera, like a journalist who's cowering from the bullets.

It's a long film but I don't think it feels like it, nothing seems superfluous, the plot is very tight and though I wouldn't rely on it for a history test (the chronology of certain events - notably the deaths - is a little off) it creates a genuine seeming experience and pushes all the right buttons at all the right times. Well directed and well acted, superbly in Depp's case. In a summer of sequels, remakes and reboots this is an original film that far from being a Heat 2 is a brilliant piece of cinema and highly recommended.


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