Status: In theaters (opened 7/1/09)
Directed By: Michael Mann
Written By: Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman
Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Michael Mann has made a fantastic film that examines both sides of a classic cops-and-robbers tale in a modern way. It shows not only the actions of the good guys and the bad guys, but their backgrounds, motivations, and personal lives as well, comparing and juxtaposing the similarities between his fully-realized characters on both sides of the law. It portrays the fine line that exists between the two vocations, and makes you as an audience feel for the cops, the criminals, and their wives and girlfriends as well. Its conclusion feels simultaneously inevitable and regretful, further establishing the blurred picture of good-versus-evil that his film spends two and a half hours painting, while solidifying the dichotomy exemplified by the two leading men.
This film is not Public Enemies, although I’m quite sure Mann would love it if his most recent film could fit that description. The film described above is Heat, and unfortunately Public Enemies is unable to live up to that previous masterpiece, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Everything about this movie makes it seem like it had a single-line pitch: “Heat, but with Dillinger.” That’s what it feels like, only the execution in nearly every facet isn’t as good.
I still remember walking out of the theater after seeing Heat, with a friend who commented, “I loved that movie… but then again, they could make a movie that’s nothing but Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sitting in adjacent stalls in a bathroom for two and a half hours, and I’d probably love that, too.” It’s tempting to feel a similar sentiment heading into Public Enemies: Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as the G-man who pursues him sounds like, if nothing else, a formula for a showcase of acting and characterization (while Bale has been a dud in his two most recent films, he’s still capable of being one of the best actors working today when he really commits himself to a role). And indeed, this is the one area in which Public Enemies really succeeds: the performances throughout are excellent, and not just the two leading men, but also the absolutely enchanting Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s love interest, and a supporting cast that counts Billy Crudup in a spot-on rendition of J. Edgar Hoover as one of its highlights. (I also loved seeing Jason Clarke from Showtime’s Brotherhood in a significant role.)
The material the cast is given to work with, unfortunately, is not sufficiently developed to be carried by their performances alone. This script is not at all interested in exploring the human side of its characters; they exist simply as states of being, with no background or motivation or development to be found. Dillinger is a man who robs banks just to rob banks, and that’s all we’re given. That Depp manages to evoke any sort of sympathy from his performance is almost a miracle. Bale’s character, Melvin Purvis, seems like he might have an interesting story, but we are never privy to it; we’re introduced to him as he chases a bad guy (Pretty Boy Floyd, played by Channing Tatum), and as far as we know that’s all he does. There is absolutely no sense of who these people are or, more importantly, what causes them to be who they are. They’re characters in the most superficial sense.
Thankfully, they do something a bit more interesting than sitting on toilets, although it’s almost as monotonous. I didn’t count, but there had to have been at least half a dozen major shoot-out scenes in this film, and none of them had anything resembling the brilliance or technical accomplishment of the iconic scene from Heat. Mann prefers to shoot his shoot-outs in Public Enemies almost exclusively in claustrophobic close-ups, often with shaky hand-held photography, providing no sense of where the characters are in relation to each other, and making it nearly impossible to even tell what’s going on. This is certainly not helped by his choice to use digital cameras and to shoot the majority of these scenes at night; the result is a grainy, pixelated jumble that only contributes to the audience’s sense of confusion. It’s an impressive (in a bad way) feat to make shoot-outs involving one of the most infamous criminals in history feel boring, but that’s the net effect here: it’s too hard to see what’s happening, so it just ends up feeling like a randomly-edited collection of unrelated shots of muzzle flares and indistinguishable people hiding behind trees, corners, and cars.
This isn’t to say that it’s all bad. As I mentioned, Marion Cotillard is beautiful and mesmerizing, and her character’s introduction to and ensuing relationship with Depp’s Dillinger is pretty much the only character development in the whole film. That it’s not fully fleshed out comes as no surprise given the rest of the movie, but at least there’s some semblance of traditional storytelling to be found. The overall narrative—what there is of one—is extremely linear and singularly focused: here’s a bad guy, here’s a good guy; the good guy chases the bad guy, they get into shoot-outs, the bad guy gets away, rinse and repeat until the final confrontation. It’s almost as if a fan of Heat tried to make his own movie, using well-known historical figures rather than bothering to come up with characters of his own, and doing a piss-poor job of emulating Michael Mann’s style. That it’s actually Michael Mann himself behind Public Enemies would be almost sad, if he didn’t redeem himself somewhat by eliciting great performances from his cast, and by anchoring his story with a couple of pivotal scenes amongst the endless shoot-outs.
I’m even a bit confused as to why the title is plural. The film only focuses on Dillinger, with the other “public enemies” almost completely relegated to the background. This is sort of indicative of the film as a whole: it wants more to simply have an engaging story than to actually work to establish one. As Ebert is fond of saying, it knows the words but not the music; these are great characters, and a great film could be made about them, but you actually have to do something with them to get to that point, and unfortunately Public Enemies finds itself mostly at a loss in this regard.