Public Enemies


Public Enemies

Johnny Depp, unphased that they didn't spring for a convertible, finds another means of open-air driving.

(Universal) Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, James Russo, Bill Camp. Directed by Michael Mann.

The difference between a hero and a folk hero is often vast. Folk heroes are often regarded as villains in their time, becoming favorites long after their deaths. Sometimes, they are terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries.

John Dillinger (Depp) qualifies as a folk hero more than a traditional hero. He robs banks yes, but he has a certain ethical code; the movie starts out with the jailed Dillinger being broken out of prison by his gang members. When the brutality of one of the men leads to the death of Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich (Russo), an enraged Dillinger kicks the offender out of the escape car.

G-man Melvin Purvis (Bale) receives notoriety by gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum). FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) promotes him to a task force with one directive: capture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. The ambitious Purvis immediately heads to Chicago to do just that.

Dillinger, relaxing at a restaurant between train robberies, meets coat check girl Billy Frechette (Cotillard) and immediately falls for her. He woos her by buying fur coats and expensive gifts. Even after he tells her who he is, she decides to stay with him.

A failed ambush at a hotel that leads to the death of an agent at the hands of the brutal Baby Face Nelson (Dorff) leads to Purvis calling in seasoned professional lawmen, Texas Rangers led by the dour Charles Winstead (Lang) despite the objections of Hoover. Shortly afterwards, Dillinger is actually captured after a hotel fire in Tucson and extradited to Indiana. He boldly escapes from the “escape-proof” prison there by ingeniously whittling a fake gun out of wood.

Dillinger returns to Chicago and finds himself unwelcome there. The heat the manhunt for him is bringing down on the city is interfering with the mob’s lucrative bookmaking operation, and Mafioso Frank Nitti (Camp) has hung out the get out of town sign personally. Dillinger is short on funds and reluctantly takes a squirrelly bank job, despite the presence of the twitchy Nelson. Predictably, Nelson opens fire on a cop outside the bank, leading to a shoot-out.

The G-Men capture a wounded gang member who is tortured until he reveals the location of the gang, the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. The feds surround the lodge and would seem to have the element of surprise, but trigger happy G-Men open fire on civilians mistaken for gangsters and a gun battle ensues. All of Dillinger’s gang, including Nelson die in the gunfire as does Purvis’ partner Carter Baum (Cochrane). Dillinger barely escapes with his best friend, Red Hamilton (Clarke) who is mortally wounded. Dillinger, alone, buries his friend.

Things are spiraling towards the inevitable for Dillinger. Frechette is captured by the G-Men after Dillinger drops her off at what he thought was a safe location. She refuses to divulge the location of her lover, even after being beaten by a brutal agent, although Purvis and Winstead stop the assault before it gets out of hand.

In the meantime, Purvis is pointed at Madam Anna Sage (Katic) by a crooked cop. He threatens her with deportation unless she co-operates. The stage is set for the denouement that even Dillinger knew was inevitable given his lifestyle.

One has to admire the look of the film. Michael Mann went to great lengths to insure historical accuracy in the set design, costumes and vehicles (going so far to use a car that Dillinger actually drove). Unfortunately, he wasn’t a stickler for it in his script. Glaring inaccuracies – for example, Baby Face Nelson did not die in the Little Bohemia gunfight as depicted here, but several months later and not in the presence of Purvis. In fact, none of Dillinger’s gang perished in the battle.

This is meant to be a vehicle for stars Depp and Bale, but turns out a bit disappointing. Depp is so low-key as to be nearly comatose, and Bale, so good in The Dark Knight, seems unsure of what to do with his character. Mann has successfully directed two stars in the same film before (Collateral) but for some reason their performances fall a little flat here.

The gun battles are impressive and exceptionally LOUD. Throughout, the film looks impressive and I really wanted to like it more than I wound up doing. Maybe I wasn’t in the best of moods at the time, or maybe I missed the point. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really connect with the movie. I found myself feeling like I didn’t know either Dillinger or Purvis any better after the credits ran than before I walked in. I also found the liberties taken with the facts disquieting; especially in light of how hard Mann worked to make the look and sound of the film more authentic (Crudup perfectly catches the Cagney-like staccato of Hoover’s voice). In fact, some of the supporting performances make this worth seeking out.

In the end, it compares unfavorably with other gangster action movies such as The Untouchables. It re-creates the Midwest of the Depression era near-perfectly, but doesn’t really make you want to spend any time there. Now there’s a crime even Dillinger would never have committed.

REASONS TO GO: A near-perfect re-creation of Depression-era Chicago and the Midwest. There are some superb supporting performances, particularly from Crudup, Clarke and Lang.

REASONS TO STAY: Oddly enough, the leads are almost un-interesting. Sticklers for historical accuracy will be dismayed at the sometimes unnecessary gaffes that permeate the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a heavy serving of violence and graphic carnage, including scenes of torture and brutality. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in locations where the events depicted actually happened, such as the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin (site of the famous shoot-out) and the Lake County Jail in Indiana, where Dillinger’s daring “wooden gun” escape took place.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The standard DVD edition includes a featurette called “Larger Than Life: Adversaries” which discusses the rivalry between Purvis and Dillinger, featuring newsreel footage, interviews with Purvis’ son as well as the actors from the film. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD featrues a featurette entitled “Last of the Legendary Outlaws,” a feature on the real-life Dillinger with some wonderful newsreel footage. Finally, the Blu-Ray has an interactive historical timeline as well as a gangster movie trivia game in addition to the featurettes previously mentioned.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine

The Men Who Stare at Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats

That goat shouldn't have eaten George Clooney's script.

(Overture) George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root, Rebecca Mader, Glenn Morshower, Nick Offerman, Tim Griffin, Jacob Browne, Todd La Tourette. Directed by Grant Heslov

The human mind is in many ways the truly final frontier. We know so little about it, yet our minds our capable of amazing things. Were we able to harness these abilities we could literally do anything we can imagine.

Bob Wilton (McGregor) is lacking somewhat in the cojones department. A journalist, he takes a job at a small town newspaper, marries his college sweetheart (Mader) and interviews quack psychics (Root) who claim they were part of a military program to develop psychic super soldiers, whose mental powers would allow the military to spy on “the enemy” psychically.

Shortly after this, Bob’s life goes to hell in a handbasket. His wife leaves him for his editor (La Tourette) and Bob falls apart. He decides to prove his manhood to his wife to go to Iraq to cover the war as a truly macho war correspondent but true to form he can’t get clearance to cover anything in the war zone, so he sits in a hotel in Kuwait, enviously watching the other journalists swap stories from the front lines while they totally ignore the inexperienced Bob.

This is when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a ramrod-straight retired soldier whose name Bob remembers from his interview with the psychic, who mentioned Lyn admiringly as “the best psi in the outfit.” He is reluctant to talk to Bob at all but when he sees something that Bob was doodling in his notebook, he does an about face and becomes willing to have Bob accompany him into Iraq on a “black ops” mission.

It turns out that Lyn has recently been re-activated to go on a mysterious mission into Iraq. When they drive into Iraq, Lyn practices his psychic skills to “keep sharp” by cloudbursting. He becomes so distracted by this he runs right into the only boulder in hundreds of miles of sand.

The two seem to be rescued by a passing truck but it turns out to be militants who capture Lyn and Bob. Lyn tells Bob a little more about the history of his outfit, “Project Jedi” (a not-so-subtle jibe at McGregor’s previous role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the man who created it, Lt. Col. Bill Django (Bridges), a free-spirited sort who embraced the new age and proto-hippie movements in California in the ‘70s a little too closely after a near-brush with death in Vietnam. When he returns to the Army, he does so with claims that he can create soldiers who can walk through walls, find missing persons through psychic means, and influence the minds of others. He captures the imagination of a somewhat unrealistic General (Lang) who is concerned that the Soviets are conducting a similar program.

The self-described Jedi Knights undergo unorthodox training methods, experiment liberally with psychotropic drugs and have mixed success in the psychic warfare department. Lyn has the most promise and becomes Django’s apprentice while another soldier named Larry Hooper (Spacey) seethes with jealousy, wanting to be the pre-eminent psychic on the planet. He takes matters into his own hands and when a young recruit dies during an experiment that Hooper clandestinely conducts using the methods of the notorious MK Ultra project, Hooper manages to shift the blame to Django who is shown the door, discharged and disgraced.

The two escape the militants along with an Iraqi civilian (Zuaiter) but run into a firefight between competing security contractors. As the pair travels further and further into the heart of enemy territory, Bob begins to suspect that he is not hearing the whole truth – and that Lyn might just be insane.

This is based on what is reputedly a non-fiction book written by an actual British journalist and makes no bones that not everything in the story is 100% factual. In fact, the opening screen tells you that much with a graphic that reads “more of this is true than you might believe.” Let’s just say that my cynic-meter was registering some pretty high numbers despite the disclaimer.

In the hands of someone like the Coen Brothers, this might have been a terrific movie. Unfortunately, first-time director Heslov (Clooney’s long-time production partner) seems to be trying too hard to make this funny and quirky all at once. The quirk far outweighs the funny percentage-wise, never a good thing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some nice moments here. Some of the scenes in which the would-be Jedi Warriors attempt to use their psychic powers unsuccessfully are nicely done, as is some of the satire, particularly Robert Patrick’s turn as a security contractor. It’s too bad that those moments aren’t more plentiful.

The cast is pretty solid, with Clooney and McGregor doing good, solid jobs in the leads, while Bridges and Spacey are dependable as always. Bridges in particular seems to be channeling his character from The Big Lebowski which isn’t as bad as it sounds since that character was so memorable (I don’t name him because I refuse to – as everyone from AOL and MiniPlanet knows I am the Dude).

There is an awful lot of drug humor here and those who are offended by such things might want to skip on by this one. I haven’t read the book this was based on but based on the subject matter I do think there was a good movie to be had. Sadly, this wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and McGregor are appealing leads while Bridges and Spacey always do good work. Some genuinely funny scenes stand out here.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too quirky for its own good, the movie tries too hard to be funky and funny. The drug humor may offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some brief nudity (some of which is Clooney’s for all you ladies out there), some scenes of violence, a lot of drug use and some rough language. A lot of “somes” equals leave the kids at home for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Kuwait and Iraq were actually filmed in New Mexico.

HOME OR THEATER: Strictly for home viewing. There are lots of movies far worthier than this one in the multiplex right now, so you have plenty of cinematic options.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Star Trek