Well, it’s not my favorite Michael Mann film, and is sure not The Untouchables, but for all it’s faults, Public Enemies is still a fair film filled with some great moments, and it’s worth a good long look.
The story is centered around bank robber extraordinaire John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). We don’t learn much about Dillinger over the course of the film other than he’s the brains of the operation, well respected among other robbers, disliked by the mob for bringing attention on them, and an all around good guy (at least for a robber and murderer).
Rather than give us a character study or a balanced look at both cops and robbers, like he did in Heat, Michael Mann instead shifts the camera to zoom in on how this man’s mere presence affected those around him. The cops, led by (Christian Bale) begin to take shortcuts and cross many important lines in their quest to apprehend their prey. The most gruesome of these is the questioning of Dillinger’s girl (played magnificently by Marion Cotillard) with an old-school cop brutality that isn’t easy to watch.
Depp is terrific, as always, providing some great moments, and I’ve already said I was impressed with Cotillard who shows here she can carry her own in more than just art-house films. However, most of the rest of the cast is forgettable, not because their performances are lacking, but the characters themselves are given little to no weight. The only other robber who has any impact on the plot is Baby Face Nelson. As played by Stephen Graham, even he is more of a cartoon (and not that far removed from Michael Badalucco in O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
Bale draws the short straw with a character who is far less developed, rounded, or even interesting. He’s also saddled with a lisping accent that seemed to be annoying to him as it was as me. Billy Crudup also has a memorable, though not necessarily convincing, role as director of the newly minted FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup’s role was one step away from caricature in many scenes, but that isn’t surprising considering the script walked that same fine line.
And then there’s the cinematography. To put it simply: Everyone who held a camera on this film should be shot. Besides the shaky cam (even in scenes without any action or even movement), many shots are poorly framed and/or focused to the point of incompetence.
The first 20 minutes are especially troubling and it took me a long time to stop being distracted and get into the film. I more than half expected a boom mic to make its way into the frame. What’s so odd is that the whole movie isn’t shot this way. Consequently, the more traditional shots clash that much more with the attempts at guerrilla filmmaking.
I will also stop to mention the film’s violence. There’s a reason it’s hitting theaters in the summer rather than fall. Many people die in this film, and several are riddled with more bullets than Beatty and Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Those who are squeamish about such things may want to stay away. The violent scenes, except perhaps the last big blowout, are well handled, though, without going too far into Rambo territory. I also want to credit Mann with giving us the most effective use of tommy guns in a movie that I can remember.
Public Enemies is a good film with the pieces in place to be so much more. There are times when director Michael Mann is at his best, hitting just the right notes of drama, suspense, and ambiance. And the film has a wonderful sense of humor which mixes well with its darker moments. However, there are plenty of moments which feel like they were done by an awkward first-semester film student experimenting with a digital camera for the first time.
I’d recommend both Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables and Mann’s Heat over this movie, but there are enough moments here that it’s still worth seeing. I just wanted more, and felt a bit robbed.