By Marty Mulrooney
I had somewhat high expectations of Michael Mann’s latest film, Public Enemies. Based on the true life story of John Dillinger and his gang, who during the Great Depression in 1933 robbed over two dozen banks, I really felt that the hard-hitting grit and powerful portrayal of obsessive men on both sides of the law that had been present in Mann’s classic Heat would transfer really well to this film, regardless of the year it was set. Sadly, I was wrong.
Johnny Depp is undoubtedly a fantastic actor, yet I feel he truly excels in the quirky roles that made him a star. Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow and no doubt pretty soon in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland as The Mad Hatter. His portrayal of Dillinger here seems somewhat flat. Even in Donnie Brasco, also based on a true story, he gave the character quirks and mannerisms that, as well as emulating the real life person, allowed you to soak him in, greedily consuming his portrayal simply because it felt authentic and real. That role may not have been as outlandish as a master pirate, but he made it feel that way anyway because there was excitement and enthusiasm.
In Public Enemies, there is a real lack of excitement. Depp certainly looks the part. The costumes in this film are fantastic without a doubt. Sadly this is where the visuals start to falter. Before I even get into the film itself, I must talk about the visuals. Michael Mann is one the first directors to fully embrace the HD format, choosing to shoot Public Enemies solely with this method and to avoid traditional 35 mm film altogether. I think this was a total mistake, although Mann has defended this decision by stating in many interviews that this allows the audience to feel a greater sense of realism. Again, I disagree. This form of filming shows every imperfection, every detail, to a fault. I could often tell that these men are actors, the guns firing blanks, the locations dressed to look older than they actually are. In a similar manner, the sound was often a mess, with key lines becoming drowned out by background noise or nearby conversations. Is 35 mm film realistic? Arguably not, yet I feel the way it hides the seams of a film is infinitely better than the cold reality of HD. Even low light scenes, which of course in real life would be very dark, suffer due to a strict adherence to reality. I would rather be able to see what is happening.
So on to the film itself. I felt the performances suffered the same fate as the visuals. No doubt, Depp has an intensity and conducts himself in a way that screams danger, yet this is the extent of his performance. At one point later in the film he briefly cries and bangs the steering wheel of his car and weeps, providing a rare moment where he feels real in the role. But after this moment, there is no more emotion. Now, perhaps this is how the real Dillinger was; cold and detached. I worry though that if this was the case, was the story worth telling? If all Dillinger amounted to was a crook who shot police officers and robbed banks, is his story even worth bringing to the big screen? The argument in the film’s favour of course is the myth that surrounded this man. He became a modern day Robin Hood to many of the public. I just wish that Mann, or Depp, or someone involved had thrown caution to the wind and actually developed the character more. I am not saying he should have been a typical gangster. The film even shows some classic gangster films from the time and how detached they were from the reality. Yet, even if it threatened the truth of the real man, I could have done with some more scenes showing him as more than a mere crook.
In a similar manner, his romance with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) feels somewhat unnatural and forced. Depp uses minimal charm compared to previous films, and Cotillard seems almost immediately infatuated and accepting of his crimes, which let us not forget included murder. The two do look good together, but their romance just doesn’t have a strong enough connection for the viewer to be swept along with them. Their dialogue is also criminally minimalistic, making it hard to buy into their apparent love. Surprisingly, one of Depp’s crew in the film, Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) steals the show. As a character he is despicable, shooting the police during robberies before they have even fired a single shot, loud mouthed and cocky. It was only after the film was over that I realised the reason he worked so well was because he was animated and had a concrete personality, however disgusting, amidst a sea of actors who were simply projecting menacing stares.
One such actor is Christian Bale, who is the biggest star present after Depp. Here as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, he is reduced to little more than nodding in agreement with his superiors, the perfect company man. There is no emotion in his performance, merely drive to catch Dillinger. Even this drive seems mandatory though, and there is no compulsion shown. His face is a blank page. Again, this may adhere to real life, but one of the things I loved about Mann’s earlier films was the contrasts shown between men on opposing sides of the law. Here, Dillinger and Purvis are interchangeable, both underdeveloped, surface-deep men. It doesn’t work well at all and means that it is hard to wish either side to win. In fact, for once you may side with the law, as Dillinger and his crew are responsible for many innocent deaths and show little remorse. This is a cold, emotionless film. The romance could have contrasted this well, but the fact that it fails to do so means that the flat characters and visuals dampen what could have been a great story. Mann should have built on the myth and cut down on the reality, because what is on display here makes a 2 hour movie feel like 3 hours, with the only respite from the detachment created coming in the form of the robberies themselves.
Mann undoubtedly still has an eye for such fast paced sequences. Dillinger later brags to the press how he can clear a bank in a matter of minutes, and you believe him too. The kinetic energy shown in these scenes is a real pick-me-up in comparison to the faltering narrative that the rest of the film employs. The shootouts are brutal, loud and confusing, giving a real sense of danger for both the criminals and the police during this ‘War On Crime.’ Sadly, no film should rely on such shallow thrills, and again the scenes lose some impact because when people die or get hit, you care little about them anyway. It is a real shame, because with added weight these scenes could have heaped on the tension and drama to breaking point. Instead, they become perfunctory and mildly distracting.
Speaking of the War On Crime, Billy Crudup as F.B.I director J. Edgar Hoover is fantastic, in his limited screen time managing to move away from caricature and infuse the role with believability. It is a shame such a minor character in the grand scheme of the film seems the most human, his faults becoming endearing, his blindness to these faults causing him to stumble towards the solution he has been looking for. He is determined and hungry for results. I just wish the rest of the characters had followed his lead, perhaps then everything wouldn’t have felt so flat and underdeveloped. Michael Mann is an auteur that, for all his faults in the past, stuck to his own unique vision of the world and the men that run amok in it. Here, he seems to have forgotten his own rules, and in the process made something too historic and rigid. A missed opportunity.
You can also read Alternative Magazine Online’s earlier Michael Mann: Auteur article here.