Monday, July 6, 2009

A Sharpshooting Sham

If you are thinking about going to see "Public Enemies," do yourself a favor and rent "Road to Perdition" instead. You'll thank me later.

"Public Enemies" is difficult to watch, and not because of its blood and violence. If anything, the shootouts pull this utterly broken time piece out of a static gutter, a testament to a brutal truth: tommy guns are the friggin' sweetest weapons in film next to light sabers (though shotguns ain't too shabby). The sounds of Depression-era weapons blasting through a digital audio filter are frightening, and the crossfire choreography, as expected from any Mann action flick, is deftly executed. But at the end of the day we do not care about any of these characters. The only evidence of their humanity ebbs red from their steaming corpses strewn across inexplicably bare Chicago streets.

The audience simply has no stake in the lives on the screen; the film's drama dribbles along a terribly misguided screenplay and score (if ever one was over an overture...). The script, co-written by Mann, a TV writer, and Ann Biderman ("Primal Fear"), does nothing but cater to formula. As the time piece awkwardly struggles to adapt to Mann's cutting-edge camera, the speakeasy script buries itself in cliche, leaving the audience waiting for the next gunshot to wake them up. The ominous, fatal silence that successfully opens the movie to surround the initial deaths of Pretty Boy Floyd and others fails to hold a substantial presence in the movie, removing any gravity that could have given the characters a tangible weight.

The production meanwhile puts all of its stake in the perceived nominal value of its cast that includes superstars Depp, Bale, and Cotillard. Even with these three monster talents, "Public Enemies" lacks dramatic or romantic resonance, and through Mann's high definition lens the story ironically proceeds without any defining depth. Dillinger becomes Depp's least interesting and least creative endeavor to date (see "Donnie Brasco" if you want to see him as a gangster). Dillinger's romance, including his romantic subplot with Billie (Cotillard) drags along after an all-too-sudden jumpstart, only to be laughed at until the over-the-top score sloppily reminds you that you should be taking this moment seriously.

On the other side of the law, Bale's Purvis could have been compelling if we knew something about him other than the fact that he is the quintessentially boring good cop. But we follow Purvis as a means to an end. Not the film's boring end, but rather the more appealing subplot that depicts the messy and painful birth of a national enforcement bureau under J. Edgar Hoover. "Public Enemies" is a mistake of a film whose only strength is its portrayal of mistakes. A silver screen turned grey: its only life seen in the smoke fading above empty black barrels.

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