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Notes from the back row

Serious bang-bang for your buck



I shot a Tommy Gun once. (In Vegas, on acid. It was awesome.) The old machine gun's kick wasn't so bad but it was hard to aim - spewing out bullets with a 'ratta-tat-tat,' that sucker had a real tendency to climb. I'm not sure how good I would have been as a depression-era bank robber but probably not as good as Johnny Depp in Public Enemies , the latest summer blockbuster now playing at the Village 8.

Directed by Michael Mann ( Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice ) Public Enemies is a summer movie for adult audiences that would rather see an old-fashioned shoot-out-and-getaway movie than an exploding robot war or superheroes in homoerotic lycra.

Admittedly, Public Enemies ' characters could be a bit more fleshed out, particularly the lesser parts, but the cast is huge and at 142 minutes of running time Mann has done pretty well. Johnny Depp stars as legendary American bank robber John Dillinger and the film picks up in 1933 with a daring escape from prison before a whirlwind year of crime, dames, gangsters, G-men and criminal-celebrity.

Deemed "Public Enemy Number One" by J. Edgar Hoover (played brilliantly by Billy Crudup), Dillinger is hounded by super-agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). In familiar Mann style, the picture is a tense drawing together of opposing forces leading to a whirlwind climax with gunplay.

Dillinger was notorious for stealing the bank's money, not the peoples', and he went out of his way to burn loan papers and debt slips. As such, he was a celebrity for the poor and the downtrodden commoners of the 1930s and Mann's biggest slip in Public Enemies is that we never see much of Depression-era America in this film. Lots of fancy cars and sharp suits, no starving families or defeated men with no home and nowhere to turn. Regardless, the "financial institutions are the real villains" theme fits well with these modern times, as does Mann's mirrored look at the Cult of Celebrity in America, with both Dillinger and Hoover/Purvis milking the press and popular culture for their own egos and ends. An aside about the FBI's torture/interrogation practices touches on current themes as well, but only lightly.

Michael Mann is a master of staging gunplay and shootout chaos and he proves it again in Public Enemies using an HD camera that delivers deep, rich blacks punctuated by gunbursts and flashes. The HD is not as effective in bright light, some shots look cheap and hokey, but for the most part the film is beautiful to look at due to top-notch art direction and costumes. The sound is fantastic and it's nice to hear some banjo in the soundtrack.

Depp plays John Dillinger as an archetype who knows it. A man of ritual, loyalty, bravado and love, but mostly as a man doing the only thing he's good at and having a damn fine time along the way.

Also playing at the Village 8, for the kiddies, is Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs , a cobbled-together crap-fest that's as fun as a plate of cold food from dinner two nights ago. This movie is leftovers, C-Grade jokes that never made the first two flicks poured onto a gelatinous storyline. Animation is decent but the rest of the flick is uninspired and crusty. Of course, eight year olds don't give a shit, do they? They just like colour and noise.

Someone should drag the Scrat, the tiger, the sloth and all the other tired Ice Age -er's out into the Nevada desert, give them a bunch of acid and a Tommy Gun and let evolution sort things out. That would be a flick worth watching, albeit a short one.

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