Michael Mann's Dillinger drama fails to engage
Emotionless 'Enemies'Michael Mann's Dillinger drama fails to engage
By Lori Hoffman
In trying to figure out why Michael Mann's Public Enemies is so emotionally cool despite a sizzling topic -- the life and times of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger -- I thought of two movies about the same era, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables. The former explores a life of crime from the emotionally and psychologically driven point of view of the bank robbers, seeing them as anti-heroes.
De Palma's movie makes sure the gangsters are seen as vicious killers while providing an emotional connection to the heroic lawmen determined to bring down Al Capone.
In essence the movies make us take sides.
Mann, who has never had a problem providing an emotional connection in his films (The Insider, Ali, The Last of the Mohicans, Manhunter), wants to stay neutral in Public Enemies. That neutrality sucks the life out of his story. The closest we get to a real emotional connection comes at the beginning of the movie while we watch Dillinger (Johnny Depp) help break his mentor, Walter Dietrich (James Russo), out of prison only to have him die during the getaway -- and later when Dillinger falls in love with Billie Frechette (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard).
There are other scattered moments, a death here and there, that almost make us feel compassion, but in general Public Enemies is far too cool for its own good. Without much character detail, the movie feels like a series of mildly interesting set pieces -- one moment full of elegantly dressed swells at a high-tone restaurant or nightclub, a moment later, screaming Tommy guns roaring in the night.
We learn almost nothing about Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) except that he is a straight arrow who believes in upholding the law. He also can't stand his boss, the politically savvy, ruthless and power hungry J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Mann manages to give us hints of the direction Hoover would take law enforcement as an intriguing sidebar to what is supposed to be the main event in Public Enemies, the capture of Dillinger by Purvis.
The performances are hindered by the lack of character detail with the notable exception of Crudup, who reeks of ambition. We don't get a feel for any of Dillinger's cohorts in crime or Purvis' fellow G-men. Bale hardly registers at all, while Depp has a few solid scenes that spark to life, only to have the spark fail to ignite a consistent interest in the story.
Considering the current economic climate, an audience would love to cheer on bankers getting what they deserve, but Public Enemies fails to give us much to cheer about.
Enough to Make You Sick
Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. is a documentary that explains in simple, stark terms how our country went from small farmers planting a variety of crops, to a few giant corporations creating two monster crops, corn and soybeans, that dominate the foods on supermarket shelves. And yes, it was the McDonald Brothers (there really were old McDonalds), who started the ball rolling by proving that you could run a restaurant like you run a factory.
It's a real horror story that touches on the obesity epidemic, the soullessness of mass-produced and over-processed foods, and how little control the FDA has over meat-packing plants that don't seem to care about E. coli bacteria. The latter's emotional cost is expressed by a food advocate who saw her three-year-old boy go from a healthy kid to dead in just two weeks after eating a tainted hamburger. This movie isn't fun to watch, but the information is important for everyone who cares about his or her health.
Public Enemies **
Directed by Michael Mann; rated R
Food, Inc. ***
Directed by Robert Kenner; rated PG
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