44 Inch Chest is an amazing film. It is a chamber play of Death and the Maiden proportions. Its rich, vile characters burst off the screen with great wit, depravity and comedic timing. Perfectly lit, gloriously acted and with a story that leaves you questioning your own emotions, it’s a shame this film didn’t get more attention. It’s got some nice homages to the British crime movies of recent years, even a Guy Ritchie or two, regardless it is the opposite end of the spectrum from any of them: Layer Cake; Gangster No. 1; Sexy Beast; Snatch; The Long Good Friday; I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Croupier; Mona Lisa; hell, even The Limey!
I don’t want to reveal much because I love the story so much, but it’s about a car salesman/gangster named Colin Diamond (played by Ray Winstone) whose wife tells him she’s met another man and wants to leave him after 21 years of marriage. Colin is madly in love with her and always has been, and he takes this news terribly. He calls up his mates and they kidnap her young lover from his place of work and lock him up in an armoire with them in their hideout, while Colin figures out his feelings.
So yeah, it’s an emotional rollercoaster, a touchy-feely crime drama, which for the most part takes place in both the dilapidated hideout and Colin’s deteriorating mind. Eventually he’s having waking nightmares, faced with a future minus his love and the prospect of immediate vindication via vengeance. The acerbic wit and violent egging-on comes forth from the mouths of Ian McShane, John Hurt, Stephen Dillane and Tom Wilkinson who fill out his entourage exceptionally well. John Hurt, bad dentures and all, stands out among them all as a hateful, aged man and the father of Colin.
McShane plays a dapper, chain-smoking, out-of-the-closet “puff” who seems to be the only one that can get through to Colin in his disjointed state of mind. Wilkinson plays a squishy, middle-aged gangster who still lives with his mum and doesn’t seem to really like his life all that much. Dillane rounds out the supporting cast as a hard-to-read friend of Colin, who consequently plagues his waking nightmares later. The beauty of this film is how each character plays off of the other and while they form a cohesive circle of on-screen personalities, Winstone always remains front and center as the emotional, volatile void that he is. His hair trigger reactions to things are the beauty of his acting (see Scum for the pinnacle of his work), and every time I watch him in a film, I get physically nervous.
If that’s not reason enough alone to see this movie, see it for the inspired re-telling of Samson and Delilah as seen through the eyes of Colin’s curmudgeon of a dad. A beautifully crafted, tightly edited sequence, it’s the kind of scene you’d expect to see in a Tarantino film; the kind of scene you skip ahead to and show your friends on movie night. The film’s score is perfect, a fusion of strings and electronic instruments from Angelo Badalamenti and Massive Attack, it puts a great finishing touch on the movie. The only thing I can’t figure out yet is the title. I assume it has something to say about how despite the broad shoulders and chest that Colin looms over his nemesis with, he’s not too large to be broken down himself.
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is over-dramatized, hyper-stylized, pulp triteness. Mr. Miami Vice himself is the last director in Hollywood who should be making a period gangster epic. His modern day, wide angle, handheld visuals are even less welcomed in a film that deserves to be more subtle in its effort to be powerful or memorable. But Mann doesn’t seem to ever get that. Everything in his films has to be glossy, Michael Bay-apprenticing fodder.
Normally Mann lets his actors scream, shout and overact their way through a story (e.g. Heat, Collateral), but here, the one good thing he brings to the film is the unusually nuance-less Johnny Depp and the strong female lead and Audrey Tatou-rivaling Marion Cotillard. Christian Bale is good as the increasingly conflicted, conscience-mining FBI agent working for Hoover himself, but Bale is just Bale. He doesn’t know how to be anything else.
Public Enemies is a great story, with great actors, amazing cinematography from the Scorsese Vet Dante Spinotti and a cool title (my blog’s name; however, was inspired by the 1931 James Cagney film The Public Enemy), but Mann wants it too flashy; Spinotti’s sets (while at times gorgeous) are over lit and the Tarantino-stylized shooting of John Dillinger in the final scenes feels like Mann’s cinematically masturbating in front of his audience. I mean, really? We need to see the bullet exiting Dillinger’s cheek bone before he hits the pavement face-first? Why is this moment so critical, other than the obvious? There are many other scenes that could have benefited from a little more build-up and celebration like this. Dillinger’s death was inevitable and expected.
Depp (as John Dillinger) and Christian Bale (as Melvin Purvis) really take their roles seriously in the film, but Mann wants Dillinger to be a larger than life character and his approach at making that happen is disappointingly unbalanced; other roles get under-utilized. Public Enemies tries too hard to be a cool, retro gangster flick — all jazzy shades of black, grey, green and amber with blink-inducing flares and muzzle flashes and crescendos of surround sound rat-a-tat-tats — when it could have just been a well-acted, taut, true-crime drama. Maybe Universal should have given it to Mamet.