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Public Enemies

There is a scene not long into Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies, that pretty much embodies his entire output. Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) is hotfooting it through woodland as Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) closes in. Floyd reaches a bluff and drops over and beyond, unseen into the trees. So: a murderous pursuit of a serious felon is, rather than merely a sweaty, grim, fraught scramble for survival, an indelibly beautiful snapshot of a gilded moment in American folklore. The past is cool? This is how we think of our icons, nostalgically, so why not film them that way?
Mann shares such proclivities with Terrence Malick; both seem deeply concerned with inexorable forces shaping man and the fight between the two. The environment is always a protagonist and things never just happen: they happen within a frame of reference, in front of a backdrop that is never irrelevant and is more likely to be the telling element of the scene in question. The world is as complicit as humans. He’s observing opposites and equals living out their lives in the way they see fit in an unforgiving landscape, an inevitable but endlessly intriguing sequence of choices and behaviour that ultimately mean what exactly? That you can’t escape yourself, the world, death, history all the time-honoured stuff. But he organises it all in a way that is palatable, attractive, calibrated and uniformly strange. He sees things from the outlaw point of view, as a Darwinist. Suits mean nothing more to him than as the attire of the epoch. He sees us as barely out of monkey suits. But he knows which look better. He seems suspicious of the superficial but he can’t help being drawn to it, a paradox that has led to a series of intensely cool, dry, neon-lit exchanges.

With Public Enemies there is nothing new from Mann, and it is hardly a revolutionary volte-face nor a risky venture. There are big, gruelling, brilliantly orchestrated, ear-blasting, breathlessly authentic gunfights aplenty for the Mann groupie, plus the usual incredible attention to period detail, dazzling camerawork and faultless ensemble performances. This is no genre-twisting surprise, nor a romantic drama with added testosterone. Is that really what you wanted anyway?

Here, Mann plays to his strengths. Indeed, resounding similarities to Heat are inarguable. Once again, we have a breakneck but hardly careening take on a bank-robber and the pursuit in his wake. This time, though, the emphasis is firmly on the ‘villain’ and, unlike with Heat, there’s little of the yin-and-yang and mutual respect implicit with the De Niro/Pacino two-handed epic. Here, we’re with Depp and Dillinger. Indeed, if the film has a flaw, it’s the uneven nature of the contrast. The ‘good’ Bale/Purvis is driven but uncharismatic, a man determined but, ultimately, out of his depth and all too aware of the fact. He’s the right side of the law but the wrong side of our empathy. (As the credits roll, we are reminded that Purvis took his own life a year beyond the events the film capture. But we never really have enough of an inkling why. Bale plays him (and Mann projects him) as a man that ultimately succeeds but with little obvious psychological impact. We’re never too worried about his fate during the film, and subsequently we’re far from unsettled to learn of his untimely demise. We didn’t see it coming and it means very little in the context of the characterisation.)

Depp’s Dillinger is part of the problem, then. He’s eminently likeable, be it as Captain Jack or here, as an indeniably benign Robin Hood-esque vault filcher. He’s content, compelled to live life spontaneously, wrecklessly, as the alternative is unthinkable – a life akin to that of Purvis, Hoover, a self-important minion, unloved and ill-remembered. He is not concerned about the future, as he’s ‘having too much fun today’. He is idolised. Those attempting to curtail their quarry are rendered bumbling, officious, grey, and the film wants us to buy this gun-toting poster boy as an understandable antidote to the machine. It’s all seductive enough to totally convince, and you won’t have time to wrestle with moral ambiguities or ethical ponderings – you’ll be too busy egging a coterie of killers and thieves on and you may wonder, during 140 minutes of unrelenting shoot-outs, break-outs and restless intermissions, how Mann has managed to make it all hang together. Even Stephen Dorff jumps on the bandwagon without stinking the place up. It works for several reasons, but the main two are these: it’s performed uniformly brilliantly (special mentions to the ever-excellent Billy Crudup as a preening paroxysm of J. Edgar Hoover and to the effervescent, mesmerising Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette) and it’s pure story. Any characterisation is done on the hop, without digression, and the result is a pint of bourbon with no hangover. Gulp it down.

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