DVD Roundup: We rob banks; Public Enemies and The Town

This double bill is linked by a theme, both movies deal with bank robbers.

First up is Michael Mann’s 2009 flick Public Enemies, which stars Johnny Depp as the infamous John Dillinger, a Depression-era bank robber who becomes something of a celebrity and folk hero due to his charisma and the perception of him as a sort of Robin Hood style figure, while robbing banks he only takes cash from the vault, not from the customers.

The film charts the last year or so of Dillinger’s life, kicking off in 1933 with the rather impressive break out from prison where Dillinger pretends to have been taken in to bust out some buddies. From then on it charts his exploits on the run and robbing banks while the fledgling FBI attempt to track him down, their efforts spearheaded by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a tough, dedicated law man.

Dillinger falls for a girl he meets in Chicago, Billie (Marion Cotillard) and they have an intense, passionate love affair. But Purvis and the law are closing in, and as his gang starts to thin out Dillinger becomes increasingly desperate and harassed. And the situation is intensified when J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) who uses Dillinger’s notoriety and interstate offences to strengthen the FBI, leading the organized crime figures who protect Dillinger to begin to lose patience.

I really liked this movie, which is quite a well done, fast paced crime thriller boasting fine performances, particularly from Depp in the lead. I’m a massive fan of Depp’s work, and he’s made some awesome flicks over the years but its easy to forget after his showy roles just how good an actor he is, and this film affords him the opportunity to deliver a more understated performance than we’ve seen in recent years.

He makes Dillinger an intensely personable, charming tough guy who you can’t help but warm to and it makes sense why the public take him to his hearts. Depp also manages to bring an intense brooding quality to the role without it lurching into too much of a glumfest, and he crafts a character who’s shown to be a walking contrast of ruthless efficiency in his criminal enterprises and oddly sentimental and sweet in his private life.

The movie captures the end of the 30s crime wave, and so we see Dillinger having to deal with increasing pressure as well as suffering through seeing his friends get picked off. There’s also his love affair with Billie, which even with all his careful planning and cunning provides a chink in his armour as he can’t stay away from her, despite knowing the risks involved. Their romance is very well handled and Cotillard is extremely good in the role, her character smart and sexy, torn between her love for her man and her reluctance to stay and watch him get arrested or killed. There’s a real sense of  mad, all consuming love to their affair, with both of them falling quickly for the other and losing their senses.

Depp and Cotillard as the doomed lovers

The supporting cast are universally good, particularly Bale as the G-man tracking Dillinger, its a fairly understated performance but Bale manages to convey this kind of tough, single minded straight-arrow nature that shows why Purvis is so good at his job. The character is shown to be dedicated and pretty badass, but throughout there’s a sense that he takes no pleasure in the violence that goes along with his job and there are suggestions that some of the methods he is forced to adopt make him uncomfortable.

Despite being polar opposites in terms of performance I did note one similarity between Dillinger and Depp’s most commercial role, Jack Sparrow. Both men have a kind of swaggering confidence that makes them endearing and also seem to revel in their own glories and reputation as outlaws, Dillinger is amused when during a visit to the cinema there is an announcement advising the audience to keep and eye out for him and later on he actually sneaks into the police department where they handle his investigation, strolling through the room examining the boards of information and even engaging in conversation regarding baseball with the officers charged with pursuing him. It reminded me of the way Sparrow seemed almost as concerned with his reputation than with his success as a pirate, most notably when he responds to the statement that he is the worst pirate someone has heard of with a satisfied “Ah, but you have heard of me.”

This taps into one of the film’s themes, the emergence of the press and celebrity culture. Both Dillinger and Hoover play the public relations game well and seem to delight in being feted in the press, with Hoover using it to elevate his own status and attempting to strengthen his bureau and its position.

Being a Michael Mann film the action is handled extremely well and its shot in the same digital style as other recent Mann flicks Collateral and Miami Vice, it lends itself to making the action seem immediate and kinetic. My one problem is that while the look worked well in the previous two flicks, capturing the alienated characters existing on the dark fringes of society, here I can’t help but feel a more traditional look might have aided. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the beauty and magic of traditional film, what I will say is that Mann’s hand held, slightly gloomy look robs the film of the glamour and glitz of its 30s setting, which would also have served to highlight how appealing the life of crime would have seemed to the depressed nation. I couldn’t help but feel he could have maintained the digital hand held look for the action and spent more time crafting the rest of the world in the flick.

However, in all honesty I found myself finding the movie to have more in common with westerns than traditional gangster movies, partly due to the bluegrass soundtrack but also because of the simple bank robberies which involve just walking in and drawing guns. There’s also a kind of fake echo of end-of-the-West flicks where the characters are being left behind by changing times, such as the outlaw community Dillinger is part of being outmatched by an increasingly sophisticated FBI and ostracized by the developing world of organized crime. Similarly, the gang being picked off reminded me of Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or the Young Guns movies.

But all in all its a superbly crafted film boasting a gripping, engaging plot featuring a stellar cast who ensure you do become emotionally invested in the central love story and the characters. It might not be one of Depp’s most iconic roles but it does allow him to stretch himself in a way that he doesn’t often get to do. 8/10.

The second half of our bank robbing double is The Town, directed by and starring Ben Affleck.

Affleck plays Doug, the leader of a four-man robbery crew of friends from the Charlestown area of Boston, notorious for its crime rate and number of armed robbers it churns out. Doug’s success comes from his intense planning of the heists, which includes analyzing and investigating all of the security personnel involved and destroying all forensic evidence that could tie them to the jobs. However, he is struggling to control his increasingly unstable and trigger happy right hand man, Jem (Jeremy Renner).

During a heist they’re forced to take the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage and later turn her loose. Fearful she may be able to finger them for the crime Jem wants to “remove her from the equation” but Doug takes care of it, following her to try and work out what she’s told the feds. However, after they start talking he begins to feel guilty about the effect the robbery has had on her and develops feelings for her.

The blossoming romance with Claire, an outsider in the area serves to reignite Doug’s dreams of leaving the life and doing something more with his life. However, ruthless FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) is closing in on the gang and local crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite) has a big job planned and is reluctant to allow Doug to leave the fold. Can Doug pull off one last big score and escape into a new life with Claire? Will she discover the truth about him?

This was a great movie, with Affleck crafting a moving crime drama which features several impressive, slickly handled heist sequences. Affleck is definitely an emerging talent as a director, and this builds on and improves on his debut Gone Baby Gone, while also still taking place in a similar setting, the white trash, crime riddled Boston neighbourhoods. He manages to build up a painfully realistic dead end world of petty criminals trapped in their way of life.

The action sequences are extremely gripping, fast paced affairs and it reminded me slightly of Michael Mann’s Heat, with the same kind of smoothly executed, well thought out armed robberies and the shootouts and chase sequences had me on the edge of my seat.

He’s similarly impressive in front of the camera, I’ve always been a fan of his, and felt much of the criticism he’s faced has been unfair and here he manages to make Doug a convincing protagonist, an intelligent criminal who, through his developing relationship, rediscovers his former hopes and begins to feel there might be more to life than robbing banks. The scenes between him and Hall allow a touching fragility to creep into the character of Doug, and its a very effective, sympathetic performance.

His background, and the fact he messed up his chance of making something of himself make him even more endearing, and the sense of a man trying to make things right is a tried and tested staple of the genre, and this is one of the best executions of that idea. There are echoes of Affleck’s Oscar winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting, with the similar plot of a working class guy being offered redemption and escape through his love for an outsider.

Rachel Hall is impressive as the female lead, with Claire being a charming, likable character. I totally got why Doug would fall for her, and not just because of what she represents. She and Affleck have good chemistry and she also manages to make Claire a rounded character, exploring the conflict she faces as she learns more about the man she’s fallen for and she also captures the character’s determined nature in not being forced out of the rough area, while also conveying how shaken up by the robbery she was.

The supporting cast do well too, especially Renner and Hamm. Renner’s thuggish, borderline psychopathic Jem is a commanding, mesmerizing presence, and every scene he’s in appears to have added tension, like there’s a loaded gun or wild animal in the room. Despite their similar backgrounds he appears to have fully lost his hope of changing things and adopted a more nihilistic approach, seeming to not care what becomes of him. Its another powerful performance from Renner, who’s definitely emerging as a great actor.

Commanding- Renner as Jem

Hamm’s fed is an interesting character, the actor is quite charismatic but in a way Frawley’s exploitation of people’s flaws and situations seems more underhand and objectionable than anything Doug’s crew do. There’s also a kind of snobbery in the character which heightens the butting of heads between Frawley and Doug.

Its a wonderfully engaging, well made crime thriller with believable characters and the central theme of Doug’s awakening and restoration of his hopes and dreams is quite movingly done. Affleck is definitely a major talent behind the camera and I can’t wait to check out his latest flick, Argo. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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