He fought the law

There’s no plot, but Michael Mann’s gang­ster film is pure cin­ema, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

THERE ARE few cults like the Michael Mann cult. Though films such as Heat, Mi­ami Vice and The In­sider have per­formed er­rat­i­cally at the box of­fice, this lau­re­ate of the ur­ban al­pha male has con­tin­ued to com­mand a fa­nat­i­cally ded­i­cated and end­lessly for­giv­ing fol­low­ing. So, when it was an­nounced that Mann was to di­rect Johnny Depp in a film based on the life of John Dillinger, the hosan­nas were many and deaf­en­ing.

Born in 1903, Dillinger re­mains the coolest and most enig­matic of the vil­lains who gained du­bi­ous Robin-Hood sta­tus while rob­bing banks and break­ing jails dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. Come to think of it, he sounds a lit­tle like the char­ac­ter played by Robert De


Niro in Heat. Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who be­came Dillinger’s most dogged foe, could be a more pu­ri­tan­i­cal ver­sion of Al Pa­cino in the same film.

With Depp as Dillinger and the in­creas­ingly mono­lithic Chris­tian Bale as Purvis, Pub­lic En­e­mies gained clas­sic sta­tus be­fore it even be­gan shoot­ing. We didn’t need to see the thing to in­stall it as The Great­est Film Ever Made.

It must be hard to re­tain your hu­mil­ity when bom­barded with such de­vo­tion and, sure enough, the fin­ished prod­uct turns out to be one of the most con­spic­u­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions of di­rec­to­rial ar­ro­gance to in­habit cin­e­mas since Ti­tanic. Though tautly writ­ten in grace­ful noir pa­tois by our own Ro­nan Ben­nett, Pub­lic En­e­mies doesn’t al­low any of its prin­ci­pals any­thing you could call a per­son­al­ity. So hec­tic is the action that it is of­ten dif­fi­cult to dis­cern which hood­lum is be­ing pep­pered by which law­man. There isn’t much of a plot.

What else? Oh yes. De­spite cost­ing $80 mil­lion (¤56 mil­lion) or so, it oc­ca­sion­ally looks as if it were filmed on your baby sis­ter’s cheaper cam­era phone.

And yet. Pub­lic En­e­mies re­mains one of the most com­pelling, in­trigu­ing, de­light­fully frus­trat­ing films you will have the priv­i­lege of see­ing this year.

Mann may re­vere sto­ry­tellers such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, but his ge­nius has al­ways been more to do with the cre­ation of mood. Closer to a Mark Rothko (walls of loom­ing am­biance) than a Pablo Pi­casso (walls of busy so­ci­ety), Pub­lic En­e­mies en­velops view­ers in men­ace and in­vites them to drift into a pe­cu­liar class of trance that re­mains un­bro­ken by ca­cophonous Tommy-gun bat­tles and crash­ing mo­tor­cars. Mak­ing good use of El­liot Gold­en­thal’s surg­ing chords and Dante Spinotti’s cin­e­mato­graphic nu­ance, Pub­lic En­e­mies may stum­ble as his­tory or drama, but it gains epiphany as the purest of pure cin­ema.

This fa­mously metic­u­lous di­rec­tor has en­sured that ev­ery as­pect of the pic­ture – the pur­pose­fully one-note per­for­mances; the largely colour­less cos­tumes; the re­strained ex­po­si­tion; even the care­fully de­signed credit font – is in keep­ing with the pic­ture’s in­cli­na­tions to­wards vi­o­lent aus­ter­ity.

Mann’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily stub­born de­ci­sion to stick with a class of high-def­i­ni­tion video that var­i­ously flares, blurs and con­ceals parts of the frame may be fur­ther man­i­fes­ta­tion of that danger­ous ar­ro­gance, but it can’t be de­nied that the im­ages are in tune with the pic­ture’s Arc­tic tenor.

So where’s the story in all this? De­spite its not in­con­sid­er­able length, Pub­lic En­e­mies has a plot that can be summed up in a hand­ful of sen­tences. We be­gin with Dillinger, al­ready a vil­lain of renown, break­ing out of jail and em­bark­ing on a new reign of crime with a gang of lesser as­so­ci­ates. He meets and falls in love with an in­tel­li­gent, force­ful singer (a very strong, if un­der­used Mar­ion Cotil­lard) and of­fers J Edgar Hoover (an amus­ingly clipped Billy Crudup) the op­por­tu­nity to form the FBI. Many banks are robbed. A few more pris­ons guards are frus­trated. It ends how it fa­mously ends.

As this non-story pro­gresses, the at­mos­phere re­mains so be­witch­ing that it be­comes easy to for­get that Depp – in wry, quip-happy mood – is never in­vited to make a hu­man be­ing of Dillinger. Like Sher­lock Holmes, Spi­der-Man, Columbo or Robert De Niro in Heat, this John Dillinger is a kind of su­per-be­ing who, be­fore a fi­nal, glo­ri­ous catas­tro­phe ar­rives, will not be per­mit­ted any frailty, doubt or vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

In one key scene, Dillinger sneaks into the room as­signed to the po­lice of­fi­cers on his case. Lean­ing beau­ti­fully on a wall, he asks the cops what the score is in the base­ball game play­ing on the wireless.

Such con­fi­dence. Such panache. Such ar­ro­gance. Per­haps Mann sees him­self in Depp’s char­ac­ter. On the ev­i­dence of this strange, mad, bril­liant film, he can still (just about) al­low him­self such hubris.

Johnny Depp as Pub­lic En­emy No 1

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