Depp vs. Bale - sparks but no heat ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Depp vs. Bale - sparks but no heat

Public Enemies
My rating:

I get the feeling that most Malaysians are more familiar with the 5-star scale of movie ratings, whereas I consciously chose the 4-star scale. I explained how I rate movies here, and I still think it has the best and clearest distinctions between every possible rating. If it's good enough for Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli, it's good enough for me.

Then along comes a movie that makes me think even a half-star isn't precise enough.

It is 1933, and the Golden Age of Crime in America. Chief amongst the infamous criminals of the time is career bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), who wins the adulation of the public for his cockiness, his ability to outwit the police, and his sense of gentlemanly honour. He falls in love with coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and promises her the world - but his era is coming to an end. Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) of the Bureau of Investigation, precursor to the FBI, is hot on his tail, and Purvis has both modern investigative techniques and dogged determination on his side.

Let me get the plaudits out of the way first. The acting is, as expected, superb. Depp has no problem getting us to root for Dillinger, and the plot certainly helps him along; he gets most of the best lines, and a lot of the film's humour comes from his sheer ballsiness and ingenuity. Cotillard has an Oscar to her name, and the role of badass lawman Purvis is a walk in the park for Bale. Supporting turns from Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen Lang as a federal agent under Purvis are all equally good. And Michael Mann's direction is assured and reliable, and there's never a scene that doesn't work.

But here's the rub - it's a very cold movie. We never really get a handle on these characters' emotional dimensions. Dillinger is cocky and wily, not much given to planning ahead, and loves Billie; that's about all we ever know of him. He falls for her literally at first sight, and she loves him in return for his charisma and his devotion to her and little else. Purvis has practically no personality; there are hints that he is disturbed by his colleagues' heavy-handed tactics, but it never amounts to anything. If he were a real person, he'd be the guy at the office whom you work with, but never get to know outside of work. Dillinger and Billie are just as two-dimensional - well-acted, but little more than characters going through the motions of the story.

And it's hardly a fresh or new story. Criminal falls for ordinary girl, but their love is destined to end tragically due to his lawless lifestyle; Mann himself has walked down this well-trodden road before in his 1995 film Heat. As well-made as it is, it still goes through the expected beats - she fears for his life and their future together, her fears are realized as he watches his friends get killed, she is used by the police to get to him, he feels guilty for getting her involved, she defies the cops out of devotion to him, so on and so forth. Even if you aren't familiar with the life and death of the real John Dillinger, there's never any surprises in this movie - although Mann tries valiantly to create suspense, with some success.

And nowhere does he try harder than at the ending, but it's still a pretty lame ending. It may be true to real life, but it still ends the movie on a decidedly dull note. It's not that I was expecting a big action-packed blazing-guns finale - the screenplay isn't 100% historically accurate, but it can't take that much artistic license. It's that lack of emotional engagement again that made it a lackluster ending.

So after much thought, I've decided to award this film 2-and-a-half stars. It's really closer to 2-and-three-quarters stars, for the acting and the execution. And I really ought to give a mention to the action scenes; they're well-choreographed and exciting, and the barks and roars of the guns are hugely thrilling. But in the end, it's a film that never loses your attention, but never really engages your heart. And a film that pits Johnny Depp against Christian Bale directed by Michael Mann really should have been better than that.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.

NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Anticipation level: woohoo!


Independent Queen said...

hey, thanks for the review. Gonna watch it tomorrow online.

McGarmott said...

Don't you think that this film is just utterly ... unnecessary?

I'm still waiting for the Mann who made The Insider and Collateral to return ...

TMBF said...

Yes, actually - "unnecessary" is a good word for it.

Travel Guide To Life said...

2 1/2 stars are pretty generous - it was a waste of my 2 hours ++.Shooting in HD made the shoot out scenes a headache for me. Too draggy as well.