Friday, June 19, 2009

As For Film: Public Enemies


In one of the earlier bank robbery scenes in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, John Dillinger holds a gun to the head of the bank manager and offers him a proposition: "you can either live a coward, or die a hero." This line carries us through one of the best action films I've seen in years. Johnny Depp is a murderous protagonist, the infamous mobster John Dillinger. It's a relief to see Depp finally doing something that doesn't require pasty makeup or vile overacting. His tepidly restrained acting comes off flawless here. His character is a criminal, but might be a hero anyway. Comparison to Robin Hood are apt.

An ambiguously accented Christian Bale plays the long arm of the law. Concerned with nothing more than getting his job done, you feel no sympathy for the character. You don't hate him, but Bale is a persistent pursuer. He will not go away, but it's a good thing. Because you want Dillinger to escape again so he can rob more banks.

It's a funny thing when a film plays up an audience's bad side. It's fun to cheer for the "bad" guy in Public Enemies, even to the point of viewing him as a hero. And why not? He lives for the moment, wears sharp clothes and tricks the government's smartest cops. How can you not cheer for that guy?

One of the more interesting traits of the John Dillinger character is his brilliant ability and dangerous inability to make plans. If it comes to an impossible task like breaking out of jail again or robbing multiple banks, Dillinger put the plans together and follows them to their completion. But making plans for anything beyond the present day seems to be a lost cause for Dillinger. He lives for the moment, and would never get too ahead of himself.

Herein lies his heroism. He is a sincerely flawed man, unable to really nail down a proper plan for himself. But, he doesn't care. He cares about the day he has been given, and he makes the most of it. As nihilistic as it may sound, Dillenger really isn't a psychopath in Public Enemies. He's an existential hero. As long as, of course, he is a character. If this weren't a movie, if this were merely a history lesson, then yes, Dillinger is a murderer and criminal. But we have a lot to learn from him as the protagonist in Public Enemies. He teaches us to challenge the stronger arms. Fight against the established order. Don't settle for easy money, hell, don't settle for easy anything. Make life worth living. Don't expect to get caught, and alwasy try to stay ahead of the curve. And, if you can, try to look good doing it.

Along with this compelling story comes a Chicago backdrop. How Mann made our modern city look the way it did in the 30s' is beyond me, but I love it all the more. Public Enemies is now a welcome addition to our collection of "Chicago movies." From the old L and Art Institute to neighborhood graystones and a stunning re-imagination of the Biograph theater, there are more than a fair share of tributes to the Second City.

Thanks to Ain't It Cool News, Michael Mann introduced the film tonight. A native Chicagoan himself, he wanted to hearken back upon the nostalgia of the brick buildings and blue collars of his childhood that inspired him to be a filmmaker. Public Enemies might be the best version of Chicago nostalgia ever put to film. If you're not a Chicagoan, you probably won't understand why this is important to us, but it just is. So deal with it.

There are no cheesy explosions in Public Enemies. No Hollywood bullshit. Just an entertaining story, exciting action scenes and compelling characters. It's not without its flaws, but we probably won't see a better action movie this summer. Will Smith go home, this summer belongs to that Edward Scissorhands guy.

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