Saturday, July 25, 2009

Movie #62: Public Enemies

#62 Public Enemies (2009)

Did you see Michael's Mann's Heat? Good. Now imagine Johnny Depp as Robert DeNiro's character, and Christian Bale as Al Pacino's character. Now dress them up in 1930's attire and swap their assault rifles for Tommy Guns. Now take the role played by Amy Brenneman and replace her with Marion Cotillard, and replace Tom Sizemore with...and so on and so forth. Yes, it's an oversimplification to say Michael Mann's latest film is just Heat repackaged with a 1930's veneer, but the similarities are beyond striking. Virtually every character and every scene in Public Enemies can find its simulacrum in Heat without stretching things too far. This is not, mind you, a bad thing. If you enjoyed Heat, as I did, then Public Enemies is a fun spin around the block in a spiffy retro model of one of my favorite cars. Aint nothing wrong with that...just don't look under the hood.

If you should happen to pop the hood, you might be disappointed to learn that Public Enemies strays rather far from historical accuracy. While John Dillinger was somewhat of a folk hero back in the day, he was also a cold-blooded cop killer. And yet, oddly, I don't recall Johnny Depp's Dillinger killing any cops. In fact, the film goes out of its way to paint him as likable, humane, romantic and full of disdain for those who did take aim at cops. This kind of revisionist history drives me crazy. I know, I know. It's a movie. So what? While it's not on the level of Holocaust revisionism, I take great issue when cinema overly romanticizes the violent acts of real people who committed real crimes. In this regard, Heat is the superior film because of its unblinking honesty about the "bad" guys...which is to say they aren't evil, but if you happen to be standing between them and their escape, they will not hesitate to put you down. There are other inaccuracies as well, such as a time-line of events that is seriously manipulated for dramatic effect, more bullets and shootouts than what actually took place, and a "dying words" scene which is very romantic but very fabricated, but it's not intended to be a fine.

The performances in Public Enemies are generally solid, except for Christian Bale who, once again, manages to find himself in a movie where the material is superior to his ability. Bale dully sleepwalks through his role as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, the man tasked by J. Edgar Hoover with rounding up the various public enemies who wreaked havoc in the 1930's. Depp, however, is certainly up to the task, giving a smooth, measured performance that, facts aside, doesn't seem overly stylized. Still, in this particular movie at least, I was struck by how oddly similar he looks to actor Robert Knepper---he of the character Tea Bag on the now-canceled show Prison Break. Knepper, a fine actor in his own right, looks like the evil twin of Depp...harder, edgier, less attractive. However, Knepper looks even more like the real John Dillinger. You decide.

Public Enemies 7/10


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