Relentless Withholding: Michael Mann’s Public Enemies

Public Enemies movie poster


Khoi Vinh rightly observes in Min­i­mal­ism, Michael Mann and Miami Vice that “Mann has pro­duced a taut, styl­is­tic and often bru­tally imper­sonal fil­mog­ra­phy that seems most inter­ested in the con­cept of work” (via Dar­ing Fire­ball). I wholly under­stand and laud the aim of a min­i­mal­ist, “relent­lessly with­hold­ing” nar­ra­tive, but I don’t believe it’s igno­rant or pop­ulist to demand more. Mann has proved again and again to be a mas­ter at man­ag­ing both char­ac­ter devel­op­ment and cold hard plot, par­tic­u­larly in his mas­ter­piece Heat. So to my eyes, Pub­lic Ene­mies marks a regres­sion. The dan­ger in per­pet­u­at­ing multi-million dol­lar movies with­out an inter­est in human beings is entire mul­ti­plexes full of soul­less spe­cial effects show­cases like Trans­form­ers. Vinh goes on to appre­ci­ate Mann’s con­struc­tion of the film as a form of design, not least because Mann com­mis­sioned Neville Brody to design a type­face New Deal, and the whole arti­cle is a must read.

The curse of avidly fol­low­ing any par­tic­u­lar artist is that one is set up for dis­pro­por­tion­ate dis­ap­point­ment when­ever their lat­est work doesn’t mea­sure up to their very best. Mann is one of my own per­sonal favorite film­mak­ers, and for the record, I would cite Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Col­lat­eral as his best and some of my favorite movies over­all. As for the rest: Man­hunter suf­fers from the usual crit­i­cisms levied against Mann (dated, styl­ized, and over­se­ri­ous). The Last of the Mohi­cans is over­rated (famous mostly for its catchy score and cap­tur­ing Daniel Day Lewis on film at his most hunky). Ali was a rel­a­tively con­ven­tional biopic. And finally, I was down­right shocked by how gar­ish, empty, and, well, just how bad Miami Vice was (on first view­ing, at least).

Johnny Depp in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesJohnny Depp as John Dillinger: “We’re hav­ing too good a time today. We ain’t think­ing about tomorrow.”

Atyp­i­cally for the genre, all three of Mann’s biopics are focused on a lim­ited time­frame. The Insider, Ali, and Pub­lic Ene­mies all exam­ine famous fig­ures as adults, dur­ing the most active and famous por­tions of their lives. Pub­lic Ene­mies can’t help but be ham­strung by the rules of non­fic­tion, which is by def­i­n­i­tion less dra­mat­i­cally inter­est­ing than fic­tion. Fic­tion is care­fully crafted by an author, and non­fic­tion is messy seri­ous of events that won’t slot into Aristotle’s Poet­ics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thou­sand Faces, or Robert McKee’s screen­writ­ing for­mu­lae that we as a cul­ture find cathar­tic in art almost by detault. Ali is also a casu­alty of this equa­tion; it’s a biog­ra­phy, not a nar­ra­tive. That doesn’t explain the bril­liance of The Insider, which I con­sider a tri­umph. Per­haps it’s because its sub­ject Jef­frey Wigand is not in the same league of fame as Muham­mad Ali or John Dillinger, allow­ing the audi­ence to dis­cover more than they may already know. I would argue that The Insider is actu­ally about some­thing big­ger than the life story of one man; it ques­tions whether integrity, purity, and hon­esty have a place in a mod­ern world run by corporations.

Before I enu­mer­ate my com­plaints about Pub­lic Ene­mies, it must be said that it’s wholly engross­ing. Mann’s cus­tom­ar­ily deep research results in a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally high level of verisimil­i­tude through­out. Many sequences were shot in the actual his­toric loca­tions, includ­ing a raid on a safe house at Lit­tle Bohemia Lodge in Man­i­tow­ish Waters, Wis­con­sin, a jail­break from Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indi­ana, and Dillinger’s death at the Bio­graph The­ater in Chicago. The action is vis­ceral and the sus­pense is nail-biting, espe­cially a sequence in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) brazenly strolls through the Spe­cial Crimes Unit offices the day before he is to die. One might assume this aston­ish­ing event to be a fab­ri­ca­tion for dra­matic pur­poses, but Roger Ebert says it’s “based on fact”).

Any fol­lower of Mann’s work will be unsur­prised to see that Pub­lic Ene­mies is visu­ally beau­ti­ful. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dante Spin­otti pre­vi­ously shot Man­hunter, Last of the Mohi­cans, Heat, and The Insider on film — how quaint! — but here turns to dig­i­tal video, with which Mann and Dion Beebe exper­i­mented on Col­lat­eral and Miami Vice. The scenes set in a dimly-lit F.B.I. tele­phone sur­veil­lance office look par­tic­u­larly strik­ing on dig­i­tal video. Stan­ley Kubrick sought nat­ural light so dearly that he famously helped develop spe­cial lenses capa­ble of shoot­ing by can­dle­light for Barry Lyn­don, so one sus­pects he would have loved the tech­nol­ogy now available.

Ter­ri­fy­ing, pet­ri­fy­ing gun­fights have been a trade­mark of Mann’s since his ear­li­est fea­ture The Keep. He has per­fected it by Pub­lic Ene­mies, in which the tight chore­og­ra­phy and extreme vio­lence is matched only by the con­cus­sive sound design. These sequences hark back to the inno­v­a­tive urban fire­fight in Heat, when to the film­mak­ers’ happy sur­prise, the actual pro­duc­tion sound proved more ear­split­ting than was pos­si­ble with post-production foley effects. When I saw Pub­lic Ene­mies in the the­ater, the first reel was marred by ter­ri­ble sound (an improve­ment over my first view­ing of Miami Vice, which was almost inaudi­ble through­out). Once resolved, the vol­ume was loud enough to almost phys­i­cally feel the force of bul­lets splin­ter­ing walls, tree trunks, and back­ground per­form­ers. Mann used to reserve his epic gun bat­tles for cli­maxes, such as when Frank (James Caan) raids the mobster’s house in Thief, and Gra­ham (William Peter­son) single-handedly attacks The Tooth Fairy’s (Tom Noo­nan) lair in Man­hunter. The shootouts grew to mas­sive scale and epic lengths in the later films, like the unnerv­ing night­club raid in Col­lat­eral, and espe­cially the cat­a­clysmic down­town LA shootout that occurs roughly in the mid­dle of Heat, which the film remorse­lessly builds towards and then thor­oughly explores the ramifications.

Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesJohnny Depp and Mar­ion Cotil­lard in Pub­lic Ene­mies: “I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indi­ana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn’t know no bet­ter way to raise me. I like base­ball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you… what else you need to know?”

In con­trast, much of Pub­lic Ene­mies is a long, sus­tained chase — a struc­tural con­ceit Mann seems to have been embrac­ing ever since Col­lat­eral. As Fer­nando F. Croce observed on The Auteurs, “Mann has grad­u­ally shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist” … “Mann’s char­ac­ters are dream­ers pos­ing as tough guys.” Mann punc­tu­ates the con­stant for­ward motion of the plot with action set pieces includ­ing at least two jail breaks, sev­eral bank rob­beries, and a chaotic raid on a safe house. Both jail breaks are clever, in which the auda­cious Dillinger largely exer­cises brains over brawn, and designs each at least partly to humil­i­ate the law­men. In the first, Dillinger gets him­self delib­er­ately locked up in order to bust his asso­ciates out. In the sec­ond, they make their get­away in the sheriff’s own car.

Dillinger died in 1934, mark­ing the twi­light of the clas­sic gang­ster era in more ways than one. His activ­i­ties insti­gated the cre­ation of the F.B.I. and the pass­ing of laws that inhib­ited crim­i­nal enter­prise, mak­ing him very unpop­u­lar with the orga­nized crime fam­i­lies that were hap­pily oper­at­ing with rel­a­tive free­dom before he started show­boat­ing and stir­ring things up. His crim­i­nal career coin­cided squarely with the Great Depres­sion era. Mann refrains from show­ing the stereo­typ­i­cal Hoover­towns or des­ic­cated farm­steads directly, but the largely unspo­ken eco­nomic strife hangs over every­one nev­er­the­less. One of the rea­sons Dillinger became such a folk hero is that he care­fully cul­ti­vated a Robin Hood per­sona by very delib­er­ately tak­ing care not to rob indi­vid­u­als, but to steal from banks and, by proxy, the vil­i­fied fed­eral government.

Con­tem­po­rary media hype made Dillinger a celebrity, and ulti­mately one of the last roman­ti­cized crim­i­nals to be able to hide out in pub­lic. Mann depicts this idol­iza­tion sub­tly. For instance, when the gang refreshes them­selves at a farm­house after break­ing out of jail, the woman of the house qui­etly begs Dillinger to “take me with you.” Note she spec­i­fies “me,” despite hav­ing chil­dren in tow. Most peo­ple still know his name today, despite him lack­ing a mem­o­rable nick­name like his peers Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nel­son. Inci­den­tally, Baby Face por­trayed in Pub­lic Ene­mies by actor Stephen Gra­ham as dan­ger­ously unhinged and mur­der­ous. He has the crim­i­nal mind, but unlike Dillinger lacks the dis­ci­pline to make it work for him. The dynamic is sim­i­lar that that of Neil vs. his way­ward hench­man Wain­grow in Heat. Dillinger can’t do what he does alone, but any asso­ci­a­tion with a man like Baby Face courts disaster.

In Knives Out for Michael Mann, Kim Mas­ters dishes the lat­est dirt on Mann (via In Con­tention). Anony­mous gos­sip has him as one of the most dif­fi­cult and even irre­spon­si­ble direc­tors work­ing today, and stu­dios may no longer wish to front his high price tag for movies that aren’t prof­itable. I usu­ally protest when I hear stu­dio exec­u­tives com­plain­ing about “dif­fi­cult” film­mak­ers — of course film­mak­ers are dif­fi­cult — they’re the artists and stu­dio exec­u­tives are busi­ness­peo­ple. With­out dif­fi­cult artists, the accoun­tants and MBAs that run the movie indus­try would have no “prod­uct” to sell. I usu­ally dis­miss the com­ments of exec­u­tives that get paid more than the artists they sup­pos­edly enable to express them­selves. But if the rumors about Mann are true, he’s more than just dif­fi­cult. In the case of Miami Vice, he report­edly dis­re­garded the safety of his crews by film­ing in the Gulf Coast as Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina bore down — fol­lowed by an actual gun fight on the set. Con­di­tions were so bad on the set of Pub­lic Ene­mies that Depp report­edly stopped speak­ing with Mann.

Marion Cotillard in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesMar­ion Cotil­lard as Bil­lie: “They’re look­ing at me because they’re not used to hav­ing a girl in their restau­rant in a $3 dress.”

Accord­ing to Scott Shoger’s Hol­ly­wood Goes Gang­ster, Dillinger was a movie buff, and was even semi-seriously plan­ning a movie about him­self not long before his death (an intrigu­ing fact we don’t see in Pub­lic Ene­mies). The last movie he saw was Man­hat­tan Melo­drama, for which Clark Gable he won an Oscar. Being Dillinger’s last movie ticket gave the film an unde­ni­able mar­ket­ing boost. Mann shows Dillinger in a state of reverie as he watches key excerpts that had some per­sonal rel­e­vance to how he saw him­self. Shoger also states post-Hays Code Hol­ly­wood had an unwrit­ten agree­ment to not pro­duce explicit biopics of actual gang­sters, lest they con­tribute to their celebrity and glo­rify the crim­i­nal lifestyle. This self-censorship more or less held until Arthur Penn’s Bon­nie & Clyde (1967). As such, only a few movies have told John Dillinger’s story, includ­ing The FBI Story (1959, with Jimmy Stew­art), The Lady in Red (1979), and at least two sim­ply called Dillinger (1973 and 1991).

In think­ing about Pub­lic Ene­mies, I can’t help but keep going back to Thief and Heat, and it doesn’t sur­vive the com­par­i­son. Maybe the real John Dillinger just isn’t as inter­est­ing as two of Mann’s pre­vi­ous fic­tional thieves (or in Mann’s par­lance, “guys that pull down scores”): Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat and Frank (James Caan) in Thief. Pub­lic Ene­mies is all sur­face, with­out the rich char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Thief and Heat. Pub­lic Ene­mies left me grasp­ing at the tini­est of frag­ments in search of depth or sub­text: a lit­tle look by an actor, a telling line of dia­logue, any­thing. But there isn’t much there. Roger Ebert appre­ci­ates the refresh­ing lack of back­story con­ven­tional in both the biopic and gang­ster gen­res. I agree with him in prin­ci­ple, but would like to point out that nei­ther Thief nor Heat fea­tures back­story — both flesh out its char­ac­ters with what you might call “now-story.”

While Pub­lic Ene­mies often feels trag­i­cally lack­ing in dra­matic inter­est, vir­tu­ally every sin­gle char­ac­ter in Heat has a back­story, even the get­away dri­ver Don­ald (Den­nis Hays­bert) that dies before the car goes one block. Here, we don’t learn any­thing about any­body. Aside from Dillinger him­self, the one char­ac­ter we prob­a­bly needed to learn the most about is Melvin Purvis (Chris­t­ian Bale). Purvis is a cold fish out­wardly, such as when we dis­pas­sion­ately guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Chan­ning Tatum) after giv­ing him one last chance to sur­ren­der. We can infer that he’s a cold, steely G-Man with a par­tic­u­lar exper­tise in sharp­shoot­ing. Bale’s per­for­mance con­veys sad­ness and guilt over what he’s doing — the ques­tion­able moral­ity of defeat­ing gang­sters with tor­ture and often even out­right sum­mary exe­cu­tion. Heat’s cops and rob­bers are both fas­ci­nat­ing, but who cares about Purvis’ safety, or if he achieves his aims? The only scene in which Bale and Depp share the screen marks one of the few sparks of life in the entire movie, but it’s frus­trat­ingly brief and unfor­tu­nately visu­al­ized through the old cliché of char­ac­ters speak­ing through bars. The old Mann would have turned it into a sev­eral minute long con­ver­sa­tion, a cen­ter­piece of the film.

Another frus­trat­ing cypher is the man Purvis drafts as as con­tro­ver­sial expert on Dillinger. Charles Win­stead (Stephen Lang), was an actual his­toric Texas Ranger, but unless I missed some­thing, the movie doesn’t iden­tify him at all, and in fact sug­gests that he’s from the wrong side of the law, being that he’s so famil­iar with orga­nized crime and the arche­typal gang­ster mind­set. We learn noth­ing of him aside from the fact that he’s clever and sus­pi­ciously insight­ful at pre­dict­ing Dillinger’s behav­ior. He’s a bit sin­is­ter, and rough and street­wise in man­ner and dress, so per­haps the point is just that he’s not the type that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) would con­sider good G-Man mate­r­ial: young, clean cut, col­lege edu­cated sorts like Hoover’s man-crush Purvis.

Christian Bale and Billy Crudup in Michael Mann's Public EnemiesJ. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) recruits Melvin Purvis (Chris­t­ian Bale) for “A mod­ern force of pro­fes­sional young men of the best sort.”

What do we learn of the main man him­self? Dillinger was a self-created celebrity ahead of his time: media-savvy and always ready to pro­duce a good, con­cise catch­phrase at the drop of a hat. The most telling rev­e­la­tion about his char­ac­ter comes from a dying col­league John “Red” Hamil­ton (Jason Clarke), who, in his dying moments, chooses to arm­chair psy­cho­an­a­lyze his part­ner in crime, say­ing he’s unable to let any­one down. Really? When did the film illus­trate this aspect of his char­ac­ter? All we can infer from his onscreen behav­ior is that he’s loyal to the woman he loves (although not so loyal that he doesn’t later go out on a date with a hooker while his girl­friend is in prison — although to psy­cho­an­a­lyze him our­selves, this action is prob­a­bly a not-very-subconscious deci­sion to allow him­self to get caught, AKA “sui­cide by cop”). Just as he was able to casu­ally stroll through his to-be cap­tors’ offices with­out being caught, Dillinger is a ghost that goes through life with­out mak­ing any kind of impact. Neil in Heat may have had no friends, fam­ily, or even fur­ni­ture, but he had a code: “Don’t let your­self get attached to any­thing you are not will­ing to walk out on in 30 sec­onds flat if you feel the heat around the cor­ner.” Like Neil in Heat and Frank in Thief, Dillinger doesn’t have an exit strat­egy from his lifestyle until he meets a woman. Neil found love and wanted to pull a final score and then dis­ap­pear for­ever. Dillinger wants the girl and an ongo­ing crime spree. Only when she is taken from him does he con­sider a final score to retire on.

A sur­pris­ing num­ber of name actors appear in tiny roles, includ­ing David Wen­ham, Lily Tay­lor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Emi­lie de Ravin (from the TV series Lost) and even singer Diana Krall in a cameo. One pos­si­ble expla­na­tion is that they sim­ply wanted to work for Mann in any capac­ity. Or maybe their roles were larger before the edit­ing process. One in par­tic­u­lar that stands out is Gio­vanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, a high level fixer and orga­nizer, sort of like the skeezy but coldly pro­fes­sional Nate (John Voight) in Heat.

Mann often catches a lot of flak for his typ­i­cal paucity of female char­ac­ters, but also for the few he does fea­ture being rather prob­lem­atic. It’s obvi­ous that Mann is inter­ested in sto­ries about men (gang­sters, cops, thieves, etc.). In my opin­ion, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make him a misog­y­nist if his sto­ries don’t always fea­ture full, richly drawn female char­ac­ters. But curi­ously, Bil­lie in Pub­lic Ene­mies may not be one of Mann’s most inter­est­ing female char­ac­ters across his body of work, but she is more com­plexly drawn than any of the male char­ac­ters in Pub­lic Ene­mies. We learn a lit­tle about her, cer­tainly more than we do about any­one else, but I still don’t get why she would drop every­thing and run off with a gang­ster. Bil­lie remains in love with Dillinger and faith­ful to him even when tor­tured and sen­tenced to a two-year jail term. True, she’s a young woman trapped in a dead-end job and the sub­ject of racism (she’s part Native Amer­i­can). A good con­trast is the char­ac­ter of Eady (Amy Bren­ne­man) in Heat, whose com­plex rela­tion­ship with the crim­i­nal Neil I found not only plau­si­ble but sadly mov­ing. Cotil­lard is fine, but I think Brenneman’s touch­ing per­for­mance as a crush­ingly lonely woman vul­ner­a­ble to a charis­matic but con­trol­ling older man really helped me under­stand her desire to run away. Both Eady and Bil­lie are will­ing to aban­don their lives, such as they are, or even impli­cate them­selves for a man that could be arrested or killed at any moment.

Must read: Neville Brody’s fave film fonts and open­ing sequences, from The Guardian

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Which Way Is Up: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

Miami Vice movie poster


The sim­ple truth is that I hated Michael Mann’s Miami Vice on first view­ing. On a tech­ni­cal level, it was marred by hideously poor sound repro­duc­tion — for which I blamed the par­tic­u­lar the­ater I hap­pened to see it in, but a friend of mine had the same com­plaint about a totally dif­fer­ent venue, sug­gest­ing some­thing was wrong with the prints them­selves. I found the film much improved when watch­ing the unrated director’s cut avail­able on DVD and Blu-ray — not just sport­ing more audi­ble sound but even improved flu­id­ity in the sto­ry­telling. I don’t recall the orig­i­nal the­atri­cal cut well enough to iden­tify what may have been added, altered, extended, or rearranged, so any num­ber of fac­tors could have con­tributed to a more for­giv­ing reap­praisal: approx­i­mately five extra min­utes of breath­ing room, bet­ter sound, and an orig­i­nal opin­ion so low there there was no way to go but up.

The film is based on the orig­i­nal tele­vi­sion series of the same name that ran between 1984–1989, cre­ated by Anthony Yerkovich and pro­duced by Mann. Its premise was famously encap­su­lated by Mann’s alleged two-word pitch “MTV cops” — a leg­end that may or may not be true but has the ben­e­fit of being right on-the-nose. Kitschy even at the time, Miami Vice drew its styl­is­tic ten­den­cies — and some­times even its guest stars — from MTV. It’s a world apart from Crime Story, another Mann crime drama and an early exper­i­ment with seri­al­ized sto­ry­telling that wouldn’t really take hold until much later with Twin Peaks and The Sopra­nos. It ran con­cur­rently with Miami Vice but was can­celled after only two two sea­sons (1986–87).

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's Miami ViceOK, you win. Your suit is shinier than mine.

Miami Vice the movie, how­ever, is the prod­uct of Mann the writer and direc­tor as opposed to episodic tele­vi­sion pro­ducer and showrun­ner. The film is more of auteur work than the col­lab­o­ra­tive medium of a tele­vi­sion series, and as such begs com­par­i­son with his other major films also set in the world of crime and pun­ish­ment: Man­hunter, Thief, Heat, Col­lat­eral, and Pub­lic Ene­mies. But whereas most of these pre­sented sym­pa­thetic (or at least com­plex) por­traits of crim­i­nals, Miami Vice is a more tra­di­tional policier firmly on the side of the good guys.

Miami Vice fol­lows the high-stakes exploits of Sonny Crock­ett (Colin Far­rell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), two Miami-Dade Police detec­tives in the war on drugs. The story begins in medias res, plung­ing the audi­ence into an under­cover oper­a­tion that goes awry, fol­lowed by an effort to assist a col­league whose cover was blown while embed­ded in a Columbian drug run­ning oper­a­tion. This sec­ond oper­a­tion is just the tip of an ice­berg: FBI Agent John Fujima (Cia­rán Hinds) reveals that there is a mole in the FBI. Crock­ett and Tubbs are dep­u­tized as fed­eral agents for pur­poses of con­tin­u­ing the investigation.

Like typ­i­cal Mann pro­tag­o­nists, the detec­tives’ jobs are the sole focus of their lives. In the DVD bonus fea­tures, a real under­cover oper­a­tive states how dis­con­cert­ing it is to lead another life as a high roller, wear­ing the finest clothes and dri­ving the best cars, but return home off duty to his fam­ily in a crappy used car. It would have been nice to see what kind of lives Crock­ett and Tubbs lead off duty, if any, and learn a lit­tle of what life is really like for under­cover cops. Instead, we watch the entire onscreen team live, eat, and sleep together in a large unfur­nished house, much like mas­ter thief Neil McCauley’s (Robert De Niro) spar­tan abode in Heat.

Colin Farrell and Gong Li in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrock­ett trav­els in style.

Both men become pro­fes­sion­ally com­pro­mised by their rela­tion­ships with women, esca­lat­ing to the point where their lives are threat­ened by their emo­tional needs. Nei­ther looks out­side their nar­row work sphere for love: Tubbs is roman­ti­cally involved with a col­league, and Crock­ett becomes mixed up with gor­geous money laun­dress Isabella (Gong Li). She’s dis­pas­sion­ate and inscrutable when we see her at work, but reveals worlds of emo­tion behind her eyes when alone with Crock­ett. Frankly, Gong Li is a lit­tle hard to under­stand, her char­ac­ter being a Chi­nese immi­grant to Havana, requir­ing her to speak two lan­guages in a film already rife with a plethora of blended accents. Justly wary of his partner’s infat­u­a­tion, Tubbs warns him, “There’s under­cover and then there’s which way is up.” Ignor­ing his partner’s advice, Crock­ett abets her escape from the fed­eral sting oper­a­tion, an act the movie judges as morally accept­able because he loves her.

Return­ing play­ers from the Mann reper­tory include Domenick Lom­bar­dozzi (from Pub­lic Ene­mies) and Barry Shabaka Hen­ley (the ill-fated jazz club owner in Col­lat­eral, who also appears as a parole agent in Mann’s lat­est TV project Luck). New addi­tions include Eddie Marsan, per­haps one of the most ver­sa­tile actors in the world, as a gov­ern­ment infor­mant with a thor­oughly con­vinc­ing South­ern twang, and John Ortiz (also a lead in Luck, and don’t miss him oppo­site Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man and Amy Ryan in Jack Goes Boat­ing). His vil­lain­ous char­ac­ter here at first seems on a par with Javier Bardem’s pow­er­ful and threat­en­ing turn in Col­lat­eral, more savvy and per­cep­tive even than his boss Arcan­gel de Jesus Mon­toya (Luis Tosar). But he ulti­mately proves pathetic and weaselly — the audience’s abil­ity to take him seri­ously not helped by a car­i­ca­tured accent just this side of Speedy Gonzales.

Mann took the oppor­tu­nity to con­tinue his exper­i­ments with dig­i­tal cin­e­matog­ra­phy begun in Col­lat­eral, and many of the loca­tions were actual. Nev­er­the­less, the pro­duc­tion was enor­mously expen­sive for a movie with­out sig­nif­i­cant CGI spe­cial effects, even though it was ulti­mately prof­itable world­wide. A sig­nif­i­cant chunk of the expense is likely attrib­ut­able to Mann’s cus­tom­ar­ily deep research in the ser­vice of verisimil­i­tude, right down to unusual speed­boats and implau­si­bly exotic (but real) types of weapons.

Gong Li and Colin Farrell in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrock­ett (Colin Far­rell) leans in to bet­ter under­stand Isabella’s (Gong Li) accent

In “Knives Out for Michael Mann”, Kim Mas­ters dishes the lat­est dirt on Mann, run­ning a parade of anony­mous, damn­ing onset anec­dotes. In par­tic­u­lar, he was sup­pos­edly incon­sid­er­ate of the safety of the cast and crew dur­ing a shoot already made phys­i­cally dan­ger­ous by every­thing from Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina to loca­tions in gang-controlled ter­ri­tory. Mann may not be solely to blame, how­ever, for Slate fin­gers actor Jamie Foxx for demand­ing higher billing and a raise after win­ning the Best Actor Oscar for the Ray Charles biopic Ray. He also allegedly demanded a last-minute rewrite that com­pro­mised the end­ing, and refused to fly to loca­tion shoots. The lat­ter, at least, may be excus­able — for The Daily Beast attrib­utes his reasonable-sounding objec­tion to an on-set actual shoot­ing incident.

The score is rather dis­ap­point­ing for a Mann film, espe­cially com­pared to the great Dead Can Dance neo-medieval sound­scapes for The Insider, the Kro­nos Quar­tet dis­so­nance in Heat, and James New­ton Howard’s Mogwai-inspired post-rock score for Col­lat­eral. Jan Hammer’s iconic theme for the TV series is inex­plic­a­bly absent, but there is a truly awful cover by the band Non­point of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, a sig­na­ture song of the orig­i­nal show.

Another car­ry­over from the province of the orig­i­nal series is the unfor­tu­nate fash­ion vic­tims. The 21st cen­tury Crock­ett and Tubbs are seem­ingly locked in com­pe­ti­tion to see who owns the shini­est suit or the sil­li­est hair­style (Crock­ett rocks a mul­let and Tubbs a precision-chiselled hair­line). One is seen to drive a rocket-propelled euro­pean sports­car, which is appar­ently not meant to be a humor­ous allu­sion to the Adam West’s 1960s Batmobile.

The film ends with a mun­dane final shot, very unchar­ac­ter­is­tic for the direc­tor that ended Thief and Heat with mag­nif­i­cent tableaus. Crock­ett enters a hos­pi­tal, cut to cred­its. I get the point: he believes love is impos­si­ble for a man in his posi­tion — he effec­tively impris­ons his girl­friend in another kind of deep cover, all in favor of him going back to work, at his partner’s side as they check up on an injured col­league. It’s true to char­ac­ter, and the­mat­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant, but visu­ally anti­cli­mac­tic and not what we pay for when we go to see a film from such a famously exact­ing and styl­is­tic filmmaker.

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Menace II Society

Menace II Society movie poster


Let me just come out and say it: I utterly and totally loathed Men­ace II Soci­ety. The Dork Report’s 1/2 star rat­ing is reserved for true cin­e­matic crimes against human­ity, movies that I think the world would have been a bet­ter place had they not been made (zero stars are for those rare and spe­cial cases, beyond the pale, where bad trans­mutes into good, like the per­versely enjoy­able Plan 9 From Outer Space — read The Dork Report review). Of course, I’m a rel­a­tively priv­i­leged white boy from sub­ur­bia, so it’s going to be tricky for me to explain my pas­sion­ately neg­a­tive reac­tion to a movie about African Amer­i­cans trapped in racist, drug-infested Watts, South Cen­tral Los Ange­les. The cheap way out would be to claim I’m not the tar­get audi­ence, but that itself would be a kind of racist copout.

Menace II Society

The best way to explain how I feel about this movie is to com­pare it to two of the best works of fic­tion I’ve ever seen: Do the Right Thing (1989) and The Wire (2002–08). Men­ace II Soci­ety opens with stock footage of 1965 Watts riots, and then fast-forwards to Watts in 1993. It’s a cheap and crass stab at social rel­e­vance that only movies like Spike Lee’s mas­ter­piece Do the Right Thing have earned. I don’t know how much fac­tual or bio­graph­i­cal truth is in Men­ace II Soci­ety, but every­thing that fol­lows strikes me as exploita­tion; which is to say, the worst, most sen­sa­tion­al­ized depic­tions of drug cul­ture dra­ma­tized to scare the bejeezus out of sup­pos­edly civ­i­lized cin­ema goers. Do the Right Thing pre­sented one of the most com­plex views of racial ten­sion ever seen in the movies, but Men­ace II Soci­ety is a mere low­lights reel of relent­less vio­lence and deprav­ity that seemed to me to be racist itself. Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog (Larenze Tate), and Tat (Samuel L. Jack­son), not a sin­gle char­ac­ter can speak a sin­gle sen­tence with­out at least three n-words and two f-bombs.

The Wire is one of the only TV series to approach the level of lit­er­a­ture, and like Do the Right Thing it counts race among its many deep themes. Many of its char­ac­ters are also under­priv­i­leged African Amer­i­cans on the wrong side of the law. But not once did I ever sense The Wire was exploita­tive or sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic in any way. Men­ace II Soci­ety barely deserves to be men­tioned in the same para­graph as The Wire, but I did note a very sim­i­lar scene in both: in the sec­ond sea­son of The Wire, Bodie and Sham­rock take a rare road trip out of Bal­ti­more and, unable to find any hip-hop on the radio, instead find them­selves lis­ten­ing to NPR’s A Prairie Home Com­pan­ion in baf­fled silence. Like­wise, the best scene in Men­ace II Soci­ety is of an African Amer­i­can fam­ily at home on Christ­mas Eve watch­ing It’s a Won­der­ful Life, and utterly unable to relate to or derive any plea­sure from it.

Menace II Society

Men­ace II Soci­ety (1993, New Line Cin­ema) is the debut film from twin broth­ers Albert and Allen Hughes, who would later go on to direct From Hell (2001), and com­pletely miss the point of the source mate­r­ial: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel. In direct con­trast to John Singleton’s sim­ply, clas­si­cally shot Boyz n the Hood (read The Dork Report review), Men­ace II Soci­ety is a slickly pol­ished pro­duc­tion (which, I believe, only con­tributes to its glam­or­iza­tion of the thug gangsta lifestyle). But it’s a clumsy film in other ways, with ter­ri­ble voiceover nar­ra­tion stu­pidly telling instead of show­ing. But it pays off in the end with the real­iza­tion of the only inter­est­ing device of the film: it’s nar­rated by a dead man.

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The Departed



Mar­tin Scors­ese works almost con­stantly, direct­ing doc­u­men­taries between each higher-profile fea­ture film. But the fre­quency of his fic­tion films is far enough apart for them to remain much more hotly antic­i­pated, and every year that went by with him being passed over by the Acad­emy Awards only more firmly estab­lished his sta­tus as a Great Amer­i­can Director.

Despite finally being the occa­sion of his long-overdue recog­ni­tion by the Acad­emy, The Departed prob­a­bly won’t be ranked among his more idio­syn­cratic and per­sonal films like Mean Streets, Rag­ing Bull, and Good­fel­las (not to men­tion his still-underappreciated films about reli­gious faith: The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ and Kun­dun). The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Chi­nese thriller Infer­nal Affairs, and thus should actu­ally be cat­e­go­rized along­side Scorsese’s other star-studded remake, Cape Fear. Both are undoubt­edly stamped with Scorsese’s auteur touch, but still not among his most dis­tinc­tively per­sonal work.

The DepartedSo, Jack, what was Polan­ski really like?

See­ing the film for the sec­ond time, this time on the small screen, this Dork Reporter is struck by the extremely high energy and pace. Like Michael Mann’s Heat (an influ­ence on Infer­nal Affairs), the story con­cerns the par­al­lel nar­ra­tives of a cop — or should I say “cwawp” — (Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costi­gan) and a crim­i­nal (Matt Damon as Colin Sul­li­van). But unlike Mann’s stately pac­ing, Scors­ese keeps every scene remark­ably short and fran­ti­cally cross-cuts between the dual nar­ra­tives. Were Marty and edi­tor Thelma Schoon­maker chug­ging espres­sos in the edit­ing suite?

One aspect of the plot I still don’t fully under­stand: what exactly does crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nichol­son) offer Colin to ensure such undy­ing loy­alty? It doesn’t seem enough that Frank pro­vided minor char­ity to Colin’s strug­gling fam­ily in his youth. What does Colin really owe him?

The DepartedSo, Jack, what was Anto­nioni really like?

But any nag­ging pac­ing or char­ac­ter issues are more than excused by the price­less repar­tee between Capt. Ellerby (Alec Bald­win) and Sgt. Dig­nam (Marky Mark Mark Wahlberg):

Go fuck yourself.

I’m tired from fuck­ing your wife.

How is your mother?

Good, she’s tired from fuck­ing my father.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead movie poster


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a pow­er­ful, elec­tric return to form for the 83 year-old Sid­ney Lumet, direc­tor of such canon­i­cal clas­sics as 12 Angry Men, Ser­pico, Net­work, and, uh, The Wiz?

Kelly Masterson’s screen­play tells the high-tension tale of a pair of wholly doomed broth­ers as a non-linear nar­ra­tive from mul­ti­ple points of view. Each jump in time and p.o.v. is accom­pa­nied by a thrilling edit­ing tech­nique I haven’t seen any­where else but Den­nis Hopper’s Easy Rider: the cur­rent and sub­se­quent scene ric­o­chet back and forth in increas­ing speed until we’re hur­tled through time into another frag­ment of the narrative.

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're DeadSid­ney Lumet’s mas­ter­class in block­ing, Fig. A

The movie is full of exam­ples of a fine direc­tor know­ing how to use the form to the story’s advan­tage. For one exam­ple of how the com­po­si­tion of a shot reflects the sub­text of the scene, note how that when­ever Andy (Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man) and Hank (Ethan Hawk) plot their scheme in the bar, Andy phys­i­cally looms over Hank and dom­i­nates the frame with his bulk.

Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're DeadStar­ring Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei’s boobs

The act­ing is great all around, includ­ing a dev­as­tat­ing turn from Albert Finney as a bit­terly dis­ap­pointed father, and Marisa Tomei as a woman who cast her lot with two of the worst prospects on the planet. And in case you think Hawke and Hoff­man are mis­cast as sib­lings, well… just watch.

Watch the trailer.

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The Bank Job

The Bank Job movie poster


The Bank Job is notable for being an at least partly “true” exposé into the spec­tac­u­lar (and suc­cess­ful) rob­bery of Lloyds Bank in Lon­don in 1971. For what­ever rea­son, an anony­mous par­tic­i­pant of the inves­ti­ga­tion chose to coöper­ate in the mak­ing of this fic­tion­al­ized film rather than a book or mag­a­zine arti­cle. If true, this far-reaching con­spir­acy story fin­gers the royal fam­ily, par­lia­ment, MI-5 & 6, the police, and even con­tem­po­rary black power fig­ure Michael X in a mas­sive cover-up suc­cess­fully with­held from the pub­lic for over 35 years. After being por­trayed less than flat­ter­ingly in The Queen, the royal fam­ily is now surely even less amused with The Bank Job’s alle­ga­tions against Princess Mar­garet. If even partly true, this exposé would have held more weight as, say, a Van­ity Fair arti­cle than a fic­tion­al­ized the­atri­cal film.

Jason Statham in The Bank JobThe gog­gles! They do nothing!

With its clever non­lin­ear struc­ture, gruff alpha-male anti-hero (Jason Statham), and untrust­wor­thy femme fatale (Saf­fron Bur­rows), The Bank Job seems at first a solid entry into the heist genre in the tra­di­tion of Rififi, Thief, and The Ital­ian Job. But the tone shifts as the stakes rise, to a more seri­ous and vio­lent don’t-trust-anyone thriller à la the Bourne trilogy.

Saffron Burrows in The Bank JobSaf­fron Bur­rows in That 70’s Show?

Offi­cial movie site:

Fur­ther read­ing on the real-life fig­ures and events:

Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone movie poster


Good ol’ Bah­stuhn Cahtholick Ben Affleck is an all grown-up, big-boy direc­tor now, and lookit, he made him­self a pretty decent movie. That said, Gone Baby Gone is a big plate of grim, with side order of depressing.

Affleck makes excel­lent use of loca­tion footage and local color. And not sur­pris­ing for a movie directed by an actor (like Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris and George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck), Affleck priv­i­leges the char­ac­ters and per­for­mances over the plot. We also see plenty of B-roll footage of the faces and voices of Boston­ers on the streets, in the bars, and on local TV screens.

Ben Affleck directs Gone Baby GoneHow many times I gotta tell you, bro? I pahked the cahr down on the yahds

Gone Baby Gone is one of the first movies to poach some of the excel­lent act­ing tal­ent pre­miered in HBO’s superb series The Wire. Doubt­less by acci­dent, Michael Ken­neth Williams and Amy Ryan both play char­ac­ters dia­met­ri­cally opposed to their TV coun­ter­parts; Williams is a sar­donic po-lice resolved to the cor­rup­tion around him (com­pare and con­trast with The Wire’s Omar, a par­a­site that feeds on the drug trade), and Ryan plays a coked-out win­ner of bad-mother-of-the-year, the exact oppo­site in every way (includ­ing accent) of her salt-of-the-earth B’more Port Author­ity po-lice on The Wire.

Ed Harris and Amy Ryan in Gone Baby GonePay no atten­tion to my rug

The few bad points to men­tion (other than the afore­men­tioned per­va­sive grim tone), are Ed Har­ris’ incon­sis­tent rug and a mid­dle sec­tion papered over almost entirely by voiceover narration.

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