I predict the new gangster film Public Enemies—which opens today at theaters across the Twin Cities—will be one of two things to any given audience member: a highly entertaining, well-researched return to the kind of cool, daedal crime films director Michael Mann does best; or a sprawling, overreaching, and messy bore with underwritten characters that drags on to an obvious, clichéd ending. I’m definitely of the former opinion, but which side of the fence you land on will have to do with your feelings towards the genre and the director’s previous work.
Michael Mann is a filmmaker I love—when he’s firing on all cylinders, that is. If so, he’s capable of crafting big-budget epics with intimate and nuanced story arcs like his masterpiece, Heat, which saw the director bring together for the first time in history a film with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in which the two actually shared scenes together. If not on top form, Mann can be a bit grating and tedious, sometimes missing the mark on what makes his subjects interesting to begin with—like, say, in his mind-bogglingly boring biopic Ali. I’ll never understand how Mann took one of the most fascinating, engaging athletes of the last century and made his life a total yawnfest.
Regardless of your feelings towards his work, Mann is a talented filmmaker fully in control of his craft. He makes his films his way, and often with big-name actors and big budgets. You will never see a 90-minute, $50,000 DIY indie film by Michael Mann. He’s primarily interested in telling stories on a large canvas.
Public Enemies, while nowhere near as great as Heat—or even The Insider—is still a great gangster film (one of the best of recent memory, but totally different from the recent Gomorrah, another notable entry in the genre) and one of Mann’s best. If you’re a fan of Heat, Thief, and Collateral, you will probably love Public Enemies like I did. It’s refreshing to see Mann come back with a kick-ass genre picture after his misguided and tiresome Miami Vice reboot.
For those in the know (and who actually care, like me), yes, Enemies does see Mann continuing his obsession with HD video. So it’s official, he ain’t going back to film. Ever. If there was a film that would send him back to the old school, this would be it. But for some very odd reason, it completely works here, much more so than with the two previous efforts, the aforementioned Vice and before that, Collateral.
The slick, crystal-clear images of the digital video camera should be out of place for the Depression era. Unlike with David Fincher’s Zodiac, which was also shot digitally, it’s obvious Public Enemies was not shot on film. I’m not totally sold on the benefits of digital video. It is cheaper and easier for filmmakers to work with, but it doesn’t look that good. Motion is often blurred, and dark, under-lit scenes have a strange aspect to them.
So why does it work ere? For one, we’ve never seen a Depression-era gangster film that looks quite like this. Never have those three-piece suits and fedoras looked so vibrant and stunning on the big screen. The gunfights (and there are many, all properly exciting as hell) have a raw, you-are-there intensity. A sense of documentary realism and Hollywood gloss coalesce to give a new type of look to one of the oldest, clichéd genres, and it’s invigorating.
Public Enemies is adapted from the novel of the same name written by journalist Bryan Burrough. I’m more than 100 pages in at this point (bad critic, I know, but who’s got the time?); it’s a great read, but it will make your head explode with all the information packed into every paragraph. Burrough researched for years to tell the true story of America’s greatest crime wave and the birth of the FBI from 1933-1934, a time that saw many of our most famous and idolized criminals run rampant with bank robberies and violence. Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker-Karpis gang, the St. Paul “yeggs,” and, of course, John Dillinger—Burrough reveals their true stories. There’s none of that movie tall-tale business, just the facts, and the result is a case of truth being much, much more interesting than fiction.
Mann and co-screenwriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman chose to focus the film mainly on Dillinger, played brilliantly by megastar Johnny Depp, and his pursuer, Melvin Purvis. Christian Bale all but makes up for his lackluster turn in the recent (and terrible) Terminator film with his take on FBI head g-man Purvis, who was J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man and lackey. Purvis and Dillinger had the kind of back-and-forth, good-vs,-evil struggle that makes for great Michael Mann movies, so it’s no wonder he was attracted to the material.
At last, here, Depp plays a real person without any funny tics and quirks to fall back on. I admit, the man always puts in an interesting performance, even in nonsense like Secret Window, Sweeney Todd, and those awful Pirates sequels, but I’ve grown tired of his shtick. I think it was after the his awful performance as Willy Wonka in the dreadful Tim Burton-directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I grew nervous for his future. With this single new performance, Depp has got me back in his corner. There’s a point where some actors become so famous they can only convincingly play larger-than-life characters; Dillinger is just that for Depp, and he nails it.
Not to heap too much praise on the film, though—it’s not without a few flaws. Recent Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard is criminally underwritten in one of the few female roles (Mann has always understood men much better than women). She plays Dillinger’s dame, Billie Frechette. Were it not for Depp’s magnetic presence onscreen it would be near-impossible to believe the things she does, especially given that she falls in love with Dillinger in a matter of seconds. Cotillard’s performance is quite annoying at first, but she really finds the character in the latter half of the film and is given a respectful and honest closure.
I’m also certain there is a much longer cut out there for this film. Some scenes and character motivations are either glossed over or forgotten completely. I can only assume (and hope—fingers crossed) Mann will give us his proper director’s cut on DVD as he is wont to do. There is definitely more depth to be mined from Purvis’s career and work habits, for example, but that must have been deleted from this theatrical cut, which stands at an already lengthy 2 hours, 20 minutes, pushing the attention spans of most mainstream moviegoers. Despite that length, the film is paced beautifully. It is entertaining enough throughout to keep audiences from checking their watches.
My unabashed encomium for Public Enemies primarily comes from a love for the genre. If you are a fan of gangster flicks, then you probably know of and already want to see this film. It will not disappoint. All the staples are there: gunfights, jailbreaks (one in particular, in which Dillinger breaks out with a wood pistol, shows Mann’s talent for orchestrating exciting action set pieces), 30s-era dialogue, car chases, robberies, all done with a fresh coat of paint that is part Scarface (both versions) and part Untouchables, but shot like a big-budget Dogme 95 film with an amazing cast of superstars and character actors.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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