Jul 3, 2009

Public Enemies (2009): A-

If Miami Vice was Michael Mann's freestyle celebration of identity and the need for spiritual release, Public Enemies is that work's paralleling, appropriately somber meditation on mortality - a harrowing rattle from its opening scenes of shackled prisoners marching in unison through the subsequent, episodic exploits in which legendary gangster John Dillinger and his cohorts fall to the determined lawmen in pursuit. Comparable to Heat's cop/criminal plot structure in surface details only, Enemies' primary characters aren't defined so much by existential hang-ups as they are by hunger for life. "I want it all, right now" tells Dillinger (Johnny Depp) after wooing lower class beauty Billie Frechette (Marion Cottilard); Christian Bale, effectively correcting his egotistical turn in Terminator Salvation, siphers off any trace of movie star charisma with exquisite understatedness as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, head of the team assigned to capture Dillinger. Though less ravishing than Vice, Public Enemies again finds Mann forging new ground in the digital arts; heavy grain emphasizes an anti-romantic view of material typically overshadowed by its own cinematic mythology, a subversive choice that comes full circle when Dillinger attends a Clarke Gable gangster film on the night of his death. Public Enemies diminishes one's expected visceral distance - every gunshot and bloodstain bears the heft of an unfolding present tense, none more cage-rattling than the chilling image of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) firing erratically as bullets riddle his chest, collapsing only to exhale a final, frosty breath.

1 comment:

  1. Much of what you say is spot-on, rob... except for the part about the digital photography. I thought that detratced from the experience. Mann used digital successfully with "Collateral", perhaps because that film was set in modern times.

    But "Public Enemies", with all that handheld camerawork and crummy digital, felt totally out of place in the way it was shot. Mann should learn from Coppola and just allow his camera to STAND STILL, for once!