Monday, July 6, 2009

"Public Enemies" Review

Dillinger biopic "Public Enemies" is an oddly disconnecting experience, and at two and a half hours, takes ample time to say remarkably little about the man, the Dust Bowl, or action filmmaking. Director Michael Mann's latest is a wet pile, a structureless mass with no discernable character arc and next to no story progression. The sequences are cyclical and redundant, and the performances are too average to elevate the material beyond its inherent mediocrity.

Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the depression era Robin Hood, is written and performed like a thousand better period gangsters, recalling Warren Beatty's Clyde in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde," but without the interesting sexual apathy. Depp's Dillinger is one-dimensionally smug, and while effectively charismatic, never convincingly human. Opposite him is antagonist Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the agent tasked with neutralizing Dillinger in the FBI's first war on crime. Bale has again been cast in a hyper masculine role, but does nothing with it. His performance isn't "Terminator Salvation" bad, but Purvis doesn't pop. The bottom line is the script never feels as smart as the people it's portraying.

The whole film is saturated with a sense of arbitrariness that makes even the shootouts dull, despite their volume screaming to a pitch that would make Peckinpah duck and cover. The sound is consistently inconsistent, in probably the single most embarrassingly unfinished mix I've heard in a major theatrical release. You can hear the chops in the sound bites, the level of ambience rising and falling with the dialogue, and changing altogether between angles in the same scene.

One of the more controversial aspects of the film's technical design was Mann's decision to shoot using HD video in favor of film. One can infer the intention was to imbibe the period piece with a modern feel, like Tak Fujimoto's work on the HBO mini-series, "John Adams," but the results here are nowhere near as successful. The whites are blown out and the darks are muddy and bland, and when combined with the shaky-cam action aesthetic popularized by the "Bourne Identity" and its sequels, "Public Enemies" becomes an ugly, disorienting mess.

Ultimately, Mann's film is tedious, indulgent, and dull. There doesn't seem to be any singular thematic intention behind the piece, and it ends up being the sort of movie where you check your watch on a bi-hourly basis. It's a definite disappointment from the director who's previously proved adept in the action genre, and any given sequence from his 1995 film "Heat" is more memorable than "Public Enemies" at its best.

Individual moments and certain scenes work well, but they never work together, and the film is an eternal thematic plateau. At the end of the day, there's very little to say about a film that says so little itself.


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