Face to face with film noir

Public Enemies
Ice Age 3
Am I Black Enough For You
Embodiment of Evil
Strawberry and Chocolate

We know what we want from a gangster film. We want characters who are half living “wanted” posters, half speeding pawns of destiny. We want faces of magnetic immutability (Bogart or Cagney) atop bodies that charge around a city while antagonists give chase. These antic antiheroes, we want to feel, are halfway to immortality – licked by hell’s flames or last-chance-redeemable to the other place – while their pursuers are condemned to the circular, eternal mundanity of virtue.

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is original because everyone, outlaw and enforcer, criminal and cop, looks and behaves the same. The movie is cast with age-defying pretty boys – Johnny Depp (pictured right) as John Dillinger, Christian Bale as his FBI nemesis Melvyn Purvis, Billy Crudup as a young, matinee-idol J. Edgar Hoover (there’s novelty) – flung into the perpetuum mobile of Chicago in its crime heyday. These human particles speeding around destiny’s white-knuckle collider are recorded in high-definition video (as in Mann’s Collateral), a visual format whose queasy, murky immediacy – its lack of a protecting veil of visual grandeur – makes the film resemble something from the 50-year-old golden age of live TV drama.

Yet contraries thrive in a movie determined never to let us settle down with one style or perspective. Depp’s mesmeric underplaying finds moments of stillness in Dillinger – only his eyes reflecting the surrounding mayhem – while Bale’s Noh-like impassivity, and his voice delivering an accent somewhere between Fate and George W. Bush, might be comical if it weren’t scary. Mann, writing, directing and producing, offers the extra contrariness of casting Marion Vie en Rose Cotillard as Dillinger’s girl Billie Frechette. We expect a standard-issue gangster’s moll, we get a pop-eyed volatile beauty with an unplaceable accent. (The real Billie was part Menominee Indian.)

Instead of gazing at these film noir folk across expanses of designer chiaroscuro, we press up against them as if jostled in a crowd. They lean into our laps in the back of a screeching car; they point shotguns in our snoots at the start of a bank robbery. They are hero-badmen cut to living size. At the same time, nothing stops us rooting for them, since the folk they fight are the fat cats and crypto-fascists guarding a society that hasn’t yet learned how to distribute money justly, or indeed justice. In the 1930s, Public Enemies argues, America was still the old west. Don’t be fooled by the tall buildings, suits and fast cars. Inside every downtown is a desert or prairie. Inside every gleaming motor is the atavistic power of horses. Inside every new outlaw or sheriff is the old outlaw or sheriff – though no one claims it is easy, on all occasions, to tell the two generations apart.

In US cinema there is no such thing as anachronism. Every epochal reality contains every other epochal reality. In Ice Age 3 all the prehistoric creatures act and talk like modern Americans – of diverse ethnicity or accent (Jewish, Italian, New Jersey) – except for Simon Pegg’s weasel, who sounds and behaves like a Dickensian cockney.

As often with action-comedy franchises the third time means 3D. You pays your money, dons your specs and gets pinned against your seat by the gale-force, stereoscopic shtick. By the third outing, hyperactivity is also replacing wit: little is funny, but everything is frantic. Here Sid the sloth, Manny the mammoth, Diego the sabre-tooth tiger and the rest fall into a Journey to the Centre of the Earth-style underworld where they must tramp to survival across caverns measureless to beast while cracking jokes and doing sideline slapstick. I wondered if it was just my face getting longer as the cretaceous minutes wore on – but colleagues, as I looked around, also seemed semi-congealed. Even the little boy in the second row, dragged along by a parent for a treat, was frozen in silence, victim of that cyclical ice age that affects audiences powerless to fend off the cryogenic effect of a sub-zero digimation romp.

July scatters human beings to the four corners of Vacationland, unless they are strapped for cash in the age of financial meltdown and must seek recreation in cinemas. God help them. Am I Black Enough for You is a brain-curdling essay in docu-sycophancy about the Philadelphia soul singer Billy Paul, whose greatest hit, “Me and Mrs Jones”, happened an aeon ago and whose fate since then is supposed to be of continuing interest to human beings.

Embodiment of Evil is Brazilian torture porn, dragged from the dungeons of oblivion only because there is a summer “J” in the month and everyone is too hot or de-energised to resist. Strawberry and Chocolate is a superb Cuban film from 1993, a little classic about gay freedom and its aspirations versus Fidel Castro and his Marxist straitjacketing. But the film is shown, or was to us critics, in a disgraceful print full of blotchy colour and popping sound. Was it struck from a videocassette? Buy the DVD instead – and when did you ever hear me say that?

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