This was almost going to have to be an open apology to Michael Mann, and in a way it still is, because the first time I saw "Public Enemies" it just seemed turgid and way too slow for a summer flick.
But luckily, I need as many second chances as anyone, so I gave his movie one, and found that though it was indeed released at the wrong time of year, it moves at its own pace while delivering an engaging tale very well told.
But before I get into any of that, perhaps a word or two about my personal connection to the '30s flicks Mann is so enamored with is in order. When I was a senior at the great Catholic University of America, I was rather dismayed to learn that, along with managing to pass all those classes, I also somehow had to do a senior thesis.
Well, luckily I was taking a class in political film that semester, so I somehow conned them into letting me write about "the social implications of '30s gangster flicks," or some such tripe. Which meant studying "The Public Enemy," "Little Caesar," "Scarface" and my personal favorite, "Angels with Dirty Faces."
And Michael Mann has clearly studied all these great flicks too. Has he made something that stands up to them with "Public Enemies"? Not quite, but his movie gets a lot of its strength by sticking to their template while adding quite a few of his own touches.
But before I go any further, it might be helpful to briefly say what this is about, since it only took in a respectable but not outstanding $41 million in its first five days. It's deceptively straightforward: Johnny Depp is bank-robbing expert John Dillinger, Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the lawman on his tail, and Marion Cotillard is Billie Frechette, the doll who stole his heart.
As I said earlier, though it by force has its fair share of shoot-em-ups, Mann's flick moves at a deliberate pace, and therefore has to be driven by great performances, which it almost uniformly is.
I had to go take a look back at Johnny Depp's IMDB resume to find the last time he was this good, and, with all apologies to the partisans of the pirate movies, I'd say it's his best performance since "Ed Wood." Like Jeffrey Wright did last year with Muddy Waters in the seriously satisfying "Cadillac Records," Depp manages to capture all the bravado that drove Dillinger and also the loyalty that at least in part led to his demise with looks as much as words. Marion Cotillard is his equal here, instantly imprinting the mix of attitude and innocence that would cause her to latch onto Dillinger so quickly, even after he tells her right away what exactly it is he does for a living.
And there are great performances riddled throughout "Public Enemies," from Billy Crupup's preening J. Edgar Hoover to Peter Gerety's hilariously sleazy turn as Dillinger's master lawyer, Louis Piquett, to an unrecognizable Giovanni Ribisi as his partner in crime, Alvin Karpis.
The seriously weak link, however, and what makes this ultimately a very good but not great flick, is Christian Bale's performance as Purvis. In order to give this tale the intensity or, well, heat of "Heat," Bale needed to deliver a lot more of the passion that drove him to be a lawman and his eventual disillusionment with it all, but his wooden performance just lets us down almost completely.
Well, that was a lot more about the performances than I intended, but they really are the best and worst things about "Public Enemies," mostly for the best. The ending, however, though you know beforehand what's coming, is nearly perfect.
I always enjoy watching people in movies watch movies (my favorite is still "Amelie"), and seeing the joy and recognition on Depp's face as he's watching Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama" are a delight, as is an earlier moviehouse scene in which Dillinger and his gang watch a newsreel about themselves. And right before Dillinger's fateful night, Mann throws in a dreamy scene at the Chicago Police Department that's almost too clever for its own good, but still very entertaining.
But a word of warning for those who haven't seen this yet but want to: This is, as the lady sitting behind me helpfully said while watching the particularly brutal demise of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), a "real shoot-em-up." Just as in the original gangster flicks and amplified by the passage of the time, the bad guys die proper and often very bloody deaths.
That said, however, "Public Enemies" is a nearly first-rate flick that almost stands up to its predecessors, and is well worth checking out if you get the chance. Peace out.