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Public Enemies: Thoughts from a train

January 5, 2010

I wrote the following about Michael Mann’s Public Enemies while travelling drunk on a train a few months ago. The details are lost to me, but go something like this: I like Mann a great deal, and remember feeling aggrieved at some po-faced and cockwards misunderstanding of the film which I read or heard somewhere or other. Drunk and on a train seemed the perfect place to right these wrongs. So please remember as you read the following: I was drunk, and on a train.

This isn’t vintage Mann. It’s not his best. But that leaves plenty of scope for beating the stern shit out of all the other macho bullshit spilling out of Hollywood, so all good.

In the end, what we have is: Better than The Keep, Last Of The Mohicans, Ali, Miami Vice and, just, Collateral. Worse than Manhunter, The Insider and, like all but maybe a dozen films ever, Heat.

It has the same men-on-the-job structure as Heat, the dynamic opposing forces intersecting briefly on the way to a fatalistic outcome. But unlike Heat, where De Niro and Pacino’s connection sends sparks which flash and fizzle through to the end of the film, the distanced relationship between Depp and Bale works better than the meeting itself. That coming together, a subdued few moments in a county jail cell, reaches for and almost snatches greatness. Bale is smug and implacid as Purvis, sharp-faced, subdued, the company man. But Depp, waiting smiling in the cell, is too much for him, unbalancing the scene with a brash monologue about watching a man die, and the cold glint of the eyes. It’s too much too soon, a beat or two too early, playing on a diffident respect that Bale’s silence hasn’t yet allowed the two to establish.

But the professional male angle is still played hard, and fruitfully. People compare Mann to Hawks in his use of macho cliques, but the truth is Mann admires a far more dangerous animal: cold, remorseless, functioning psychopaths. De Niro’s McCauley is a frozen corpse of calculation, and just like the real hero of Mohicans isn’t Daniel Day Lewis but his get-shit-done dad (who’s been scalping mutherfuckers for years), so it’s not Bale or Depp who earn the most admiring looks from Mann’s camera in Public Enemies, but a steely southern agent drafted in by Purvis who consistently makes smart calls and doesn’t blink as he puts a bullet into Dillinger at the close (though he does do the honourable thing and deliver his final message: a Man, not a Monster).

A major difficulty of the film is the clash of period setting and digital video. But not, as my fear was, because it robs the gangster epic of its spectacle: the set-pieces are still luminous and grand, Dillinger bounding over bank counters just like the movies taught him to, the art-deco interiors and coat-tailed costumes looking luxurious. The problems come with crowd scenes – blurry and indistinct – and even more so with moments of intimacy. The quieter, closer sequences are lit with shadows that wreck the painterly pretence that film – celluloid – can build. These scenes look no more than the flat sum of their parts: a room, a man, a woman – there. Not strikingly immediate, as the intention presumable was, but strikingly ordinary.

For all his truth and precision, Mann’s finest moments still come when he lets his subjects explode into barely contained flamboyance. Depp wandering through the incident room daring to be captured, a pressured and possessed Purvis skipping from the footplate of a car with Thompson cracking in the darkness.

The gunfights are still a major pleasure. Unleashed in Heat’s running street battle, they reached an obscene plateau in Miami Vice, the ending of which was like having Colin Farrell fire an assault rifle directly into your ear. Here again there’s a respect of the deadly machinery, but also a revelling in the thunder of those frantic, punching bursts. Like Mann’s treatment of manhood and humanity it’s naked, desperate and dangerous. He has an uncomfortable affinity with the criminal element – no, not the criminal element, but the uncompromising element. Killers, basically.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2010 10:05 am

    I liked this film. A lot. It's interesting that the Depp/Bale scene was entirely fictional; the two never actually met, other than when Dillinger was gunned down outside the Biograph. I was sure I noticed a lot of Heat parallels, and you've just confirmed it. GOOD WORDS.

  2. January 5, 2010 10:06 am

    And by 'met' I mean 'stood over his corpse'.

  3. January 6, 2010 12:39 pm

    oh my god!!!!What a lovely picture of train…i liked it and i also like the movie…I like these type of movies..If you cannot watch or download Public Enemies movie..Then,You can watch it here

  4. January 7, 2010 3:05 pm

    Have you seen Mesrine? You should you know – makes a great foil to Public Enemies, and is, I think, the better movie by some distance. Not that I disliked Mann's film, but I felt alienated by Bale's frosty stoicism – particularly frustrating when the closing text suggests that there is a fascinating coda to his behaviour in his eventual suicide.

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