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Monday, July 06, 2009

Public Enemies

As I sat in my favorite place, the back row of the Essex Cinemas, in the dark, with the flicker of the movie screen dancing across my eyes, I realized that maybe we had become a little too civilized in the past seventy years or so. I was watching Public Enemies, the story of 1930’s bank robber John Dillinger and his moll Billie Frechette, along with Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Frank Nitti, and a handful of other notorious criminals of the period. Back then, the cops and the Bureau of Investigation (not yet the Federal Bureau of Investigation) didn’t worry about search warrants, reading criminals their rights, and generally being civil. They just kicked open doors with their guns drawn and started shooting. Can you imagine anyone getting away with doing that now? Of course these days it’s not the regular Joes who are robbing the banks; it’s the bankers robbing the regular Joes, and nobody screws with the banks. Not if they want to stay in their homes, keep their cars, credit cards, and first born kids. Admit it though, you’d love to have seen a G-Man burst in and plug Bernie Madoff a few dozen times with his Tommy-gun.

I’ll bet the economy would be in a whole lot better shape right now if those bastards on Wall Street AND in Washington DC seriously had to worry that they might just be gunned down for their crimes if they tried anything sneaky. Instead they have the luxury of big-name lawyers, plush penthouses to hang out in for months or years while delaying their trials, and the off-chance of finding a loophole and getting off Scott-free. Maybe if we had cops hanging around Congress and Wall Street just randomly letting rip with a spray of gunfire from a Tommy-gun (into the air, into the air) now and again we’d have a whole lot more honest system going for us.

And speaking of honesty, let’s be honest about Public Enemies: This is one s..l..o..w….a..s..s action picture. I’m not sure why it seems so slow in places because it isn’t lacking in actual ‘action’, but the characters, or maybe the script, don’t connect well with the audience. You can’t blame the cast. Well, you can, and maybe we should, sort of, because they are all well-known and capable of terrific performances, so they should have collectively spoken up over the fact that there is nothing on the page for them to work with; these actors should have seen that there wasn’t going to be any Oscar-worthy performances to be mined anywhere in this script. Co-writers Ronan Bennett (tv’s "10 Days to War"), Michael Mann (Miami Vice), and Ann Biderman (tv’s “Southland”) seem to have worked independently of one another on whatever stories they felt were interesting and relevant to the 1930s crime wave, and then patched them together into a bigger whole to mold some sort of semi-coherent tale about John Dillinger and the agents out to capture him. Therein lays the problem.

The story is coherent, but it lacks personality. The individual characters say their lines and do what they are supposed to do, but what motivates them (other than the obvious greed on the part of the robbers) is not addressed or even hinted at. Dillinger (Johnny Depp; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), who was 21 at the time of his death and is played here by 45 year old Depp, falls hopelessly in love with barfly Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard; 2007’s Best Actress Oscar winner for La môme) after a single dance in a nightclub, and without explanation he risks his freedom and his life to be with her ever after. As for why he started robbing banks, it’s anybody’s guess. Considering this was in the midst of the Great Depression, some background about Dillinger’s family or lack thereof, or his own sense of desperation in these grim times, might have been helpful (or at least a tad interesting).

As for Billie, frankly, I thought she was basically a whore. When Johnny drags her back to his place after tracking her down after their first date, he presents her with a fur and director (and co-writer) Michael Mann immediately cuts to a bedroom sex scene. In other words Johnny traded her a mink for a beaver and she went for the deal ~ hook(er), line and sinker. That is about the closest to character development you’ll find in Public Enemies, on either side of the law.

A terribly under-used Billy Crudup (Watchmen) cameos as J. Edgar Hoover, and his role is aching to be expanded. While he snipes at Senators about the need to make his Bureau of Investigation a Federal operation (to utter failure by the way), we also see him briefly at home with his life-long *ahem* “associate” Chuck Tolson (Chandler Williams; The Caller). While there’s nothing exciting going on, you just know Jedgar (as his friends called him) is only a heartbeat away from putting on a lovely peignoir and a pair of six inch Joan Crawford f-me pumps. Now that would have put a little humor and a bit of personality into this otherwise dry piece. And believe me, from what I’ve heard, Jedgar was one dry piece!

The G-Man in charge of hunting down the “Ten Most Wanted” during what Hoover calls “America’s first War on Crime” is Melvin Purvis, played by The Dark Knight himself, Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation). For all we know about Melvin, he could be a psycho killer with a fetish for shooting bank robbers. What drives him or where he comes from, why he does what he does, anything about him is a blank slate. Ironically, he’s comes off as nothing more than a Terminator, 1930s style. At least he doesn’t talk much, so there was probably less chance of “ruined” takes during production that might send him into one of his infamous tirades and turn him an Internet sensation like on his last film set.

I think Public Enemies tries hard. Certainly the costume department worked overtime to dress hundreds for scenes at a Miami racetrack, and the details of the period are captured with great attention (well mostly; a few of the cars are from the latter 1930s than the actual 1934 of the film, but why be picky?). It’s one of those very strange and mysterious things about movies. You can have all the best actors in the world, a terrific idea (after all, Bonnie and Clyde was a HUGE hit… in 1967), and even a good opening date (without much competition), and still people would rather go on vacation than spend a few hours with your baby. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad baby, but it might have been more appealing if it had been born in November rather than July. This is the season of giant robots and boy wizards. The least Public Enemies could have done was have Dillinger killed by a Transformer if it wanted to score big.

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