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Friday, Dec. 18, 2009
Depp sliced up in cutting room
Director Michael Mann's films are often about cops or criminals, and it doesn't really matter which, because in Mann's world, they're just flip sides of the same coin: hardboiled, driven, type-A personalities like James Caan in "Thief" (1981), Tom Cruise in "Collateral" (2004), or both Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in "Heat" (1995). These guys — and they are always guys — love nothing so much as the adrenaline thrill they get from living on the edge, whether that involves breaking the law or hunting down those who do so.
In that respect, Mann's "Public Enemies" — a portrait of legendary 1930s bank robber John Dillinger — is more of the same. With Johnny Depp as the charismatic criminal who pulled off over two dozen bank raids and broke out of jail twice, and Christian Bale as his relentless pursuer, FBI agent Melvin Purvis, "Public Enemies" often feels like a 1930s remix of "Heat," Mann's most perfect distillation of his themes.
Dillinger rose to national fame during The Great Depression, when the economy had collapsed and banks were either failing or foreclosing on people's mortgages. (My, how times change.) As such, criminals like Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde Barrow and Pretty Boy Floyd were viewed with grudging admiration by much of the public, who saw them as taking a little revenge on the hated banks. Of course, there was also the fact that they also shot people dead in cold blood.
1973's "Dillinger" — starring the rough-hewn Warren Oates ("The Wild Bunch") and directed by gun-loving libertarian John Milius (screenwriter on "Apocalypse Now") — was an ode to the joys of criminality. Oates played Dillinger as a cocky, bad-to-the-bone outlaw, who enjoyed nothing more than fast cars, fast women, and fast-firing tommy guns, and displayed a gruff masculinity that would never make it out of screenplay development these days.
Mann, as is his wont, has made a far more romantic and elegiac film, one which suits his star's incredible popularity with the ladies. Depp's Dillinger falls for nightclub cloak-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at first sight, and risks his own skin repeatedly to be with her. He's a dangerous guy, but his chivalry is never in doubt, and — as in "Heat" — it's Dillinger's soft spot for his woman that leads to his downfall.
This makes a decent enough story, but it doesn't quite square with reality, though, as on the night he was shot, Dillinger was at the cinema with a prostitute and her madam, an inconvenient fact that's elided in Mann's film.
Overall, Mann has made a typically atmospheric and moody film, with amazing period detail, some intense shootouts, a handful of carefully polished performances, and some nice ideas about how both feds and criminals played the media to justify their existence. So why does this film feel so wrong in such a major way?
Well, just take a look at the scene where Depp and Cotillard get their big falling-in-love moment over a dinner-table conversation; the cutting is so extreme and fidgety, so devoid of rhyme or reason, that it breaks up this crucial romantic moment into so many jagged shards. The performance itself no longer exists, merely a series of split-second, disconnected echoes of it. Depp and Cotillard are fine actors, yet the editing doesn't trust them to hold our attention, and resorts to needless flash and fidgeting, with brief microsecond shots from every conceivable angle.
It's interesting to compare this to that classic Pacino / De Niro confrontation in "Heat," where they warily size each other up across a diner table; it's a simple, unfussy back-and-forth, cut sharply on each line of dialogue, which allows us to remain focused on where the actors are taking us, and creates a hypnotic rhythm that pulls the viewer in.
The editing in "Public Enemies" is simply a shambles. It's so extreme that at one point I found myself counting, and almost no shot in the film is held for longer than two or three seconds, with four being an especially long take. Looking at the credits, I was dismayed — but not surprised — to realize that the editor was Paul Rubell, who has gone downhill since working on both of Michael Bay's ADD-afflicted "Transformers" movies. (He brings a similarly blurry and often incomprehensible style to the action scenes here too.) Hopefully, Rubell won't be given the chance to castrate the next Mann film.