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July 8, 2009


Public Enemies: maybe I expected too much?

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

The movie I've been most looking forward to all summer is Michael Mann's Public Enemies. I love some of Mann's movies (especially The Insider, Manhunter and most of Collateral), I love Johnny Depp, and I'm a sucker for period gangster movies that involve slick suits, big guns, and smoky nightclubs.

Maybe my expectations were too high. I was completely prepared to love Public Enemies, but I didn't.

The good things about it:

  • If the movie had any overarching theme, it's how our society constructs crime. John Dillinger knew how to turn on the charm and use the media to make the public love him, even though he was a thief and a murderer. J. Edgar Hoover also uses pop culture to launch his War on Crime, showing "America's Most Wanted"-style reels at movie theaters about "public enemy number one" like a sort of 1930's reality show. Hoover's methods may have backfired, since spotlighting Dillinger made him even more of a celebrity and a folk hero, but it's interesting to see the moment when law enforcement turned real-life crime into entertainment.

  • The contrast between Dillinger the man and Dillinger the pop icon. I love the scene of John Dillinger in a movie theater, watching the reel about himself. He watches, sort of detached and bemused, with only a moment of anxiety as the audience is instructed to "look to your right; look to your left", but of course, nobody notices him. John Dillinger is just an unsophisticated farm boy who's good with a machine gun; Dillinger the public enemy is practically a movie star.

  • The overlap between Johnny Depp and John Dillinger. In one of the only moments of exposition in the whole movie, Dillinger declares that he likes "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you", speaking to a pretty girl he just met. He's a man of action who isn't interested in image, even though his image is what makes him who he is. You could say the same things about Johnny Depp, judging from the recent Vanity Fair feature where he carouses around with his buds, drinking and enjoying being Johnny Depp, yet has no interest in watching his own movies.

  • The scene where a mob middle-manager (played by John Ortiz, who was in "The Job") tells Dillinger that they will no longer associate with him, launder his money, give him guns, or let him use their safe houses, because he's "bad for business." The mob was pulling down a lot more cash through their gambling ring than Dillinger was stealing from banks, but the feds were only interested in Dillinger, because he made a better celebrity-criminal. This one scene says more about perceptions about what kind of crime matters in this country than anything else in the movie, and I wish they did more with it.

  • Marion Cotillard telling an abusive cop, "When my Johnny finds out how you slapped around his girl, you know what's going to happen to you, fat boy?"

But overall, the movie felt surfacy and meaningless. It's fine to drop in on the action with no exposition: we can figure out who these characters are as we go along. But it's like there was nothing to figure out. I never felt like I understood what John Dillinger was all about, except that he was good at robbing banks, and I have no clue what the members of his gang were like. Wouldn't it have been interesting to see some stuff about the relationships between Dillinger and his gang, the people at the safe houses, and the madam he was friends with? It would have been, but we hardly got any of it.

The gritty look of the HD video was fine and made sense, but using hammy dialogue straight out of a 40's gangster movie totally didn't fit with the look. The acting was cold and flat, which is fine for a movie that doesn't glamorize its characters, but then it's almost impossible to care when those characters get arrested or killed. There are no cheesy biopic cliches, but there also isn't any character development, emotion, or suspense. As Roger Ebert says in his (positive) review: "His name was John Dillinger, and he robbed banks. But there had to be more to it than that, right? No, apparently not."

I'm surprised that I these characters were so uninteresting, because Michael Mann knows how to get you to care about his characters. Think about The Insider: Russell Crowe is brave, but he's thorny and unfriendly, not especially likable. But we really care about what happens to him and want to see where the movie goes. We already know what happens to Dillinger, so we need something else besides the plot to feel invested in him, and I don't think we got it.

My favorite review is David Edelstein's in NY Magazine. He suggests that the best rejoinder for Public Enemies is the Michael Jackson video for "Smooth Criminal":

It's a tommy-gun gangster fantasia with a touch of Guys and Dolls, and it's everything Public Enemies isn't: madly inventive, genre-bending, a passionate tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner. The video reminds you why the gangster has become an existential hero in pop culture: It’s how he seizes the space. On some level Michael Mann knows that, but he's paralyzed by his pretentions and specious morality. And he can't dance.

Here's the long version and the short version of the MJ video. Not really a fair comparison, but the video is a lot more fun than the movie.

categories: Celebrities, Crime, Culture, Media, Movies
posted by amy at 2:19 PM | #

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I disagree about the gritty HD style. To have a relatively straight forward "period piece" shot in a reality TV style didn't match up well at all. There were some shots that looked down right terrible and it looked in many places like it wasn't lit at all (e.g. the club scenes, using available light) or overlit (the outdoors night scenes were people were lit with "moonbeam" spotlights).

Going in and out of hand-held also seemed to detract from the movie rather than add to it.

I thought the movie was pretty good and Depp was awesome at times, but the technical aspects really detracted for me. (Sound design seemed also hamfisted.. Basically, I noticed it at times, and when you stop paying attention to what people are saying to what sonic world they are in, that is -- in my opinion -- bad sound design.)

Posted by: Colin Davis at July 8, 2009 3:58 PM

Yeah, I thought the HD look was OK for this movie, in concept anyway, because Michael Mann was trying to do something different with the gangster movie genre, staying away from glitz and glamour and going for some kind of harsh, violent realism. But I agree with you that it sometimes ended up looking pretty cruddy, and in the hand-held scenes I often couldn't tell what was going on or who was shooting who. HD can look great, but it seemed like an unnecessary technical stunt in this case.

And the sound was pretty awful! In the theater where I saw it, the sound wasn't turned up loud enough, but it seems like everyone had trouble hearing some of the dialogue, which was mumbly and flat. I liked some of the music, but other times it pulled me out of the movie instead of enhancing the scene.

OK, one more gripe: the love story at the center of the movie was sweet and at least provided something for the characters to do besides engage in repetitive action sequences. But why try to make the audience believe that John and Billie had a deep and abiding love for each other when he was killed while out with two other women? Dillinger had a lot of ladies in his life, I'm sure, so the idea that he had this transcendent love for Billie felt false and contrived by the end. If you're taking off the rose-tinted glasses and going for realism, an exaggerated love story doesn't fit in.

Posted by: amy at July 9, 2009 9:59 AM

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