In 1987’s The Untouchables, there is a scene where Elliot Ness has just about had enough of Al Capone’s top enforcer, Frank Nitti. You see, throughout the movie, Nitti had set himself up, through his actions, as one of the most low-down, sniveling, moustache-twirling, white suit-wearing villains in movies. In fact, I never thought actor Billy Drago got his due for delivering such a vile character in those “Best Movie Villain” lists that crop up from time to time. I’d put him at least on a par with Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction…
Anyway, earlier in The Untouchables, Nitti had murdered Ness’s best friend, Malone (Sean Connery), in cold blood. Ness figures this out and chases Nitti onto the roof of a court building, leading to an exciting chase/gun fight set to the iconic music of Ennio Morricone. Finally, Ness catches Nitti, who taunts him by claiming that he’d soon be out of jail; that he’d “beat the rap.”
Then he makes the mistake of essentially admitting that he killed Malone and that he died “like a stuck Irish pig,” if memory serves. That sends Ness on a bit of a berserker rage, ending with him tossing Nitti off the roof with some such bon mot like “Did he (Malone) sound anything like that?”
It is a crowd-pleasing moment; maybe a tiny bit stand-up-and-cheer. Also, it never actually happened. Nitti was a real guy, and was never thrown off the roof of a courthouse to his death. I don’t think that should get in the way of a good “stand-up-and-cheer” moment, and I’m glad The Untouchables ends the way it does. Very satisfying, you know?
Michael Mann, who directed Public Enemies, would disagree. Frank Nitti is also in his movie, yet survives to the end of the movie’s timeline. Mann seems to be OK sacrificing those crowd-pleasing moments in favor of strict accuracy of the facts in EXACTLY the way they happened. Because of that, I’m not sure everyone who goes to see Public Enemies is going to get what they want. If you are expecting John Dillinger/Melvin Purvis mano y mano face-offs, pithy one-liners, cat & mouse cop/criminal psychological warfare, you might come out a bit disappointed.
Mann is more concerned with how it actually went down, which wasn’t quite so sensational. True, there a bunch of bank robberies, prison escapes, and tommy-gun fights in this movie (the one at the Wisconsin lodge is especially bad-ass), but the 2 1/2 hour running time is equally devoted to J. Edgar Hoover in the early days of forming the FBI and the manner in which agents had to track these bank robbers back in the day.
I loved all this stuff, actually. While Depp delivers the goods in every scene he is in, I also wished I could have seen more about, say, Purvis’s task force he brought in from Texas. Or the mob’s branching out into less flashy, but more lucrative, money-making enterprises. Or even the rest of the gang, like Baby Face Nelson (who is a flat-out psycho in this).
There is so much to this movie that it may have worked better as a mini-series on HBO, where it could have breathed a bit more. Not that the product in theaters right now is sub-par; it isn’t. It is a compliment that I feel that a lot of audiences are going to want more of the appetizers Public Enemies offers than it ultimately delivers.
But you gotta see it, right? Michael Mann always delivers quality merch, and Public Enemies is no exception. Just know what you’re getting- this is a movie that is ultimately about a rock-star criminal, crazy-popular with the public, who slowly realizes that he is toxic to the people in his life, be it his girlfriend, his gang, or the mob whose business he ends up hurting. And through that, yes, you do get bank robberies, prison breaks, and tommy gun battles.
I’m a big Michael Mann fan, and I bet you are, too. Here is a list of the movies that he has directed, in order of my preference. I haven’t seen his early movie The Keep, so it ain’t on the list.
1. Heat (1995): For the technical know-how, the broad-daylight gun battle, and for Al “She’s got a great ass!” Pacino.
2. The Insider (1999): For turning what should be a dry expose of the evils of the cigarette industry into a tense as hell thriller.
3. Collateral (2004): For a very entertaining silver-haired Tom Cruise.
4. Public Enemies (2009): For all the reasons listed above.
5. Last of the Mohicans (1992): For the last 15 dialogue-free minutes, set on the edge of a cliff.
6. Manhunter (1986): For giving us a Miami Vice-influenced Hannibal Lecter story. Not as good as Silence of the Lambs, but is based on the best Lecter book (Red Dragon). And far better than Brett Ratner’s re-do.
7. Thief (1981): For a great James Caan role. There should be more of those.
8. Ali (2001): Not great Michael Mann, but Will Smith cuts a good Cassius Clay.
9. Miami Vice (2006): Terrible Michael Mann- muddled, incoherent, and boring. To be fair, though, it does have one great kill…