Early Oscar contender “Public Enemies”?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last week that it is increasing the number of best picture nominees this year from five to 10, reverting to a format that hasn’t been used since the 1940s. Though this seems like a marketing ploy to double the number of nominees that will profit from heavy campaigning, certain quality films that might otherwise be overlooked could stand to benefit.
The Michael Mann-directed “Public Enemies” could be a primary beneficiary. Though it stars two hugely talented and well-liked stars, Johnny Depp (as bank robber John Dillinger), and Christian Bale (as Federal agent Melvin Purvis), this film is not likely to cause people to forget their blockbuster monikers: Captain Jack and Batman.
“Public Enemies” underwhelms in the action department primarily because it is really a throwback cops-and-robbers drama, and what it lacks in thrills is made up for by its captivating characters and impressive attention to period details. (Including black overcoats and fedoras galore.)
The story, faithfully adapted from Bryan Burrough’s book, depicts a brief period-a little over a year in Dillinger’s life-beginning with his escape from an Indiana state prison. Already well-known, he flees to Chicago with his gang and is granted sanctuary by the post-Capone mob. As expected, Depp brings smoldering intensity and dimpled effervescence to his portrayal of the notorious gangster. But Bale isn’t given much room to expand his role as Purvis-he’s a fairly rote, dead-serious G-man-but his performance is compelling nonetheless. Billy Crudup is brilliant as newly appointed bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover, who becomes obsessed with proving his mantra that “crime does not pay.”
There are several well choreographed shootings, (history shows that Dillinger himself rarely killed), and chase scenes, many of which are staged on the actual locations. A key strength of the film is the depiction of Dillinger’s relationship with coat-check girl Billie Frechette, and Marion Cotillard sparkles as the apple of Dillinger’s eye during his brief life.
As usual, Mann’s work (“Collateral,” “Heat”) doesn’t disappoint. But his use of digital filming techniques with lots of hand-held cameras and close-ups gives the movie a contemporary look that keeps the film from completely transporting the audience to the depression era. And some will take exception to the restrained performances of his actors and the relatively small amount of graphic violence. If that’s what you need to enjoy a film, go rent a Martin Scorsese DVD and watch actors chew up the screen for Oscar’s sake.
It’s worth mentioning that “Public Enemies,” content-wise, is as mild an R-rated film you are likely to find. It’s doubtful any caring parent would prefer their teenager to be subjected to the relentless depravity of the PG-13 rated “Year One” over the relatively sporadic and non-gory violence of “Public Enemies.” Not that any more evidence of the ratings system’s absurdity was necessary. It has been this reviewer’s public enemy #1 for years.
Rated R for gangster violence and some language.