I am a huge fan of Michael Mann. If you are a loyal reader, you know that "Heat" and "Last of the Mohicans" are two of my favorite films of all time. And "Collateral" was one of my favorite films of that year. Heck, even "Miami Vice" was fun to watch. And Johnny Depp seems to have one of the most loyal followings of any movie star since maybe Clark Gable. Christian Bale? On a hot streak and always interesting. So, their new collaboration "Public Enemies" would seem like a sure bet.
"Public Enemies" has some really good elements and the film has a lot that simply doesn't work. In the end, I guess this makes the film a wash. Which is rare for Mann.
Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, the celebrated gangster who proficiently robbed banks during the Great Depression and became a hero for the downtrodden masses. As the film opens, Depp leads a highly choreographed prison breakout, freeing the rest of his crew from an Indiana prison. Then, the crime spree resumes. Dillinger and his crew execute their plans, quickly entering and leaving the targeted bank, refusing to take the money of the working class depositors. And because he works hard, he plays hard. Naturally, he attracts the attention of the police and the government and the head of the newly formed, struggling Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Hoover doesn't receive the necessary funding he wants from Congress, they believe his agency is ineffective, and realizes capturing Dillinger would be a good way of proving his floundering agencies worth. He turns to Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who successfully tracked and killed Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum, "G.I. Joe", "Fighting", "Step Up"). Purvis relocates to Chicago and sets about capturing the Public Enemy Number 1. When Dillinger and his men visit a nightclub, he spots Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, Oscar winner for "La Vie En Rose") and they begin a torrid relationship. As the cops and the FBI close in, Dillinger finds he has another group becoming increasingly upset with him; the Mob. Dillinger works frantically to stay one step ahead but will not give up his relationship with Billie.
What I really like about Mann's films is that he isn't afraid to use technique, to show what skills and tools he has at his disposal. Usually, these little flourishes serve to make his films more interesting, allowing the visuals to enhance the story, to help define the characters. Mann has been using High Def Video to shoot his films, giving him the ability to capture the image of the film in a very different way. This super sensitive method of capturing light has lent itself well to films like "Collateral" and "Miami Vice", two films set largely at night, in large cities and centering on crime and criminals. This technique allows Mann to, for instance, capture an extreme close-up of Tom Cruise while keeping Jamie Foxx, who is standing about twenty feet away, also in focus. Or, when Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are on a rooftop discussing their latest stake-out with other members of their squad, we see an extreme close-up of Crockett with Tubbs a few feet away and other members of their crew standing in the distance, all in focus, all contributing to the discussion. Mann uses this camera and many of these same techniques in "Public Enemies" but it isn't a good fit. Given the time period, you really expect a different type of look, a look more in keeping with the time, something more evocative of the 30s. Because the look doesn’t really fit, these same techniques draw attention to themselves, making them seem artificial, unnecessary and obtrusive. Everything they aren’t when Mann uses them in a modern day tale about crime and criminals.
Another benefit of the smaller, more sensitive camera is monetary. Because he is shooting on video, he saves the cost of expensive film stock. And he can do "set-ups" faster. Until this film, this camera has served Mann well.
There is an extended sequence set at a lodge in the woods where Dillinger and his men are hiding out after a robbery. As the camera moves across cars approaching the building, the headlights flare across the screen, leaving a light trail. Later, when Dillinger is staring in to the forest, we see Depp in an extreme close up; his features very noticeable, if slightly grainy do to the low level of light. These are interesting shots and good techniques, but they don't fit in the time period. You see the characters driving old cars, wearing vintage clothing, trying to approximate the 30s, and because it is shot on high def video, it looks like a parody, like a high school play.
Another problem with "Enemies" is that we are expected to take everything at face value. Dillinger becomes obsessed with Frechette, threatening his freedom to spend time with her. There simply isn’t enough time devoted to their relationship to make this believable or interesting. Their initial meeting, in a nightclub where Billie works as a hat check girl is interesting. But as she continues to rebuff his advances, I felt like we were going to see an in-depth representation of their relationship, but the next time we see them together, they are both head over heels for each other. It almost seems like Mann cut a few sequences out.
This is not the only example of this. We are introduced to Melvin Purvis (Bale), as he hunts down Pretty Boy Floyd. This capture gives him a certain notoriety and makes him Hoover's chosen one to hunt for Dillinger. But Mann and his writers seem to be hinting Purvis is obsessed with the criminals. He will stop at nothing to capture them. The problem is that we are given the outline of this character, yet provided with few, if any details to support this outline. Sure we watch him doggedly pursue Dillinger. But we don’t know where he came from or why he is now the poster child for Hoover.
Depp is always watchable and he lights up the screen as Dillinger. Even so, the character is drawn with broad strokes, with Depp giving the character a Robin Hood feel. At one point, he tells a man standing in a bank, wearing coveralls, to keep his money, they are there for the bank's money, not his. This sort of attitude helps to cement his persona with the public, a persona the government and Hoover are very adamant about quashing.
As Depp runs through the story, he displays a certain amount of 'derring-do'. After meticulously planning each job, he and his men go through each step like clockwork. Also, Depp shows us that Dillinger went for everything he wanted. When he sees something he wants, he goes for it.
I think it is great that Depp wants to play so many larger than life characters (his next collaboration with Tim Burton has him playing the Mad Hatter in "Alice In Wonderland") and he is very good at it. But he needs to remember to find some trace of the inner character as he has done so well in "Edward Scissorhands", the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Sweeney Todd".
Dillinger attends a screening of "Manhattan Melodrama" starring Clark Gable as a gangster, William Powell as his buddy, a lawyer and Myrna Loy as the woman torn between them. As the sequence plays out, Mann keeps returning to shots of Depp, with a slight grin on his face and a moustache strangely reminiscent of Gable, indicating that Dillinger was what? Self-aware and had a feeling he was about to be killed? I'm not sure. I'm not sure how anyone could know what Dillinger was thinking or feeling and it would all have to be conjecture.
Bale is interesting, but he isn't able to infuse the character with more than a couple of levels of back-story. Do I think this is Bale's fault? No. All of the characters in the film seem to be created in broad strokes, no one seems three dimensional and fully developed. Bale certainly conveys Purvis' intensity, his desire to apprehend criminals, but we don't get a picture of any other part of his character. A coda at the end of the film hints at something deeper, more disturbing, but this isn't really developed over the course of the film.
Billy Crudup makes an appearance as Hoover and he gives the most interesting performance in the film. This is pretty amazing when you look at the amount of screen time he has and the fact "Enemies stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. But in his few short scenes, he hints at the manipulation, the megalomania, the duplicity in the man we would later learn so much about. A couple of glances at his "assistant" also pique our interest at his relationships and how undercover he had to keep his 'alternative lifestyle'.
Mann and his writers have created a film that seems to be more like a Cliff Notes version of the film we would expect from the director. Why should we expect something different from Mann? This is the same director who took what could have/ should have been a normal cops and robbers film and made it into the masterpiece that is "Heat". Every single character in this film has a back-story, something we learn about their background, their motivations and the part they play in the overall story. Add to this a bunch of great, expertly filmed and choreographed action scenes and you have a masterpiece and the best Cops and Robbers film ever made.
In "Enemies", It is also more than a little distracting to watch the parade of notable actors Mann has assembled, including Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Shawn Hatosy, Leelee Sobieski, many of whom only appear for a few minutes before disappearing, In a way, this only serves to help make the film seem all the more superficial, as though Mann wasn't interested in going beneath the surface, trying to get at the core of the characters and the story. This parade of actors only draws attention to the fact that none of them is playing a fully developed character; they are merely a face on screen.
In "Public Enemies", Mann brings us expertly choreographed action scenes, but because the character development is so lacking, the film feels flat and lackluster, much like the barren landscape Dillinger and his men travel through during their getaways.
It is a rare misstep for Mann.