Public Enemies

It was time to watch a movie – any movie – and this as what was readily available. I’m not a big fan of Michael Mann’s films, but Johnny Depp as John Dillinger is enough of a draw card for me.

That, and the curio factor where the films was shot with a digital format camera.

What’s Good About It

The film is very graphic and dynamic in showing us the bank robberies. The robberies have a certain rhythm to the action and the choreography is very smooth, you think it’s a work of art. Which in a sense it is, in the context of this film.

As a kid, I never really understood the bank robber thing. I like heist movies and I like action movies, but I never got the 1930s mode of robbing banks where a car pulls up guys with trench coats walk into a bag and hand over  a note across the counter. The cliche of the act that spawned a whole genre of single frame cartoons.

But for the act of robbery to become so generic, there had to be an archetypal modus operandi, and I guess I never got the point of approaching the problem this way. Well, this film tells you a lot about how robbing isolated banks, armed with Thompson machines guns would make a kind of perverse sense.

The script is reasonably tight, although it has some tedious sections. You never quite get where the story is going except you’re aware that Dillinger is going to die, so you have to focus on the process. And the process seems just plain dull at times. You find yourself longing for the adrenalin-charged robbery moments in the film – which I guess is the point of the characters and their lives.

The film also looks good. Because it originates with a digital video kind of technology, the picture has a weirdly outlined quality to many of the objects on the screen, but it helps to bring more detail to the screen than film. It is harsh where film would not be hard. It is detailed and fine where film would blur.

The low light stuff at nights is magnificent in this picture. More on this later.

What’s Bad About It

A star vehicle film is always captive to the stars it deploys. Casting a star at some times works as narrative shorthand to explain who that character is, by having an actor bring in their baggage from previous roles. In that sense, John Dillinger played by Johnny Depp is an extension of his Captain Jack Sparrow persona, just more subdued and romanticised. While, that abbreviates the need to explain too much about the John Dillinger coming in to the film’s story, it also casts Dillinger as doubly romantic not only for his actions, but because of Depp’s Jack Sparrow baggage.

If that was straddling the border of where a film dissipates into a terrain where the willing suspension of disbelief ebbs away, then Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis and Billy Cruddup as J. Edgar Hoover sort of turns this into Batman and Dr. Manhattan versus Jack Sparrow, with 1930s gangster garb.

While in its best moments the film shows us something about these historic figures we were blind to, but in the not so good moments, these guys are not *anonymous* enough to bury their identities for their characters. Yes, they’re good actors, but not ever good enough for us to forget just who you are watching on the screen.

Maybe this is the limitation of the star system itself, or perhaps it is the fault of the director? Maybe it is symptomatic o the entire system on which this film is produced? It’s hard to pin down, but one thing for certain is that this film’s casting is a little too self-aware.

I have seen this before in Michael Mann’s films, namely in ‘Heat’ where Robert DeNiro was pitted against Al Pacino (with Val Kilmer on the side) and you never really got to forget that fact as you were watching.

Still, if that’s your worst problem, then you’re way ahead of the baying pack.

What’s Interesting About It

Digital Cinema has just turned the corner. In future we may have to embrace this technology more and more. This film represents the vanguard of what is coming, even though many a film maker is in denial about it. Some time in the near future, this technology will be so good and so cheap that it will send film cameras packing.

You could almost say this film was there already. The advantage of the lightness of the camera were abundantly clear in some of the adventurous angles. Its strengths in low-light environments was incredible. No, it didn’t look like film as we’ve long known it, but that’s not the point. This film was pushing for a new vision of cinema.

The digital camera does wonders for night scenes show with the low light setting. Suddenly the other-worldlyambience and exaggerated contrast gives the film a strange glow. If nothing else, the way night scenes will look has changed as a result of this technology.

What’s interesting about the camera also is what happens to the objects outside the depth of field. Normally in film, they blur into circular blurs. In this film you can see it blur into square-ish tiles. It’s very subtle and you can onyl barely make it out, but it is also what gives it a different look.

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