In review: Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and Christian Bale
Considering his previous films Heat and Collateral are two of the absolute best crime thrillers ever made, I was expecting Michael Mann’s latest film, Public Enemies, to turn out along the same prestigious lines as those masterpieces.
I mean, there wasn’t DeNiro, Pacino or Cruise to work off of, but Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and Christian Bale in a period piece depicting one of the greatest and most interesting lives in American history, with the story of John Dillinger? This seemed like a no-brainer success. At least, that’s what my thoughts were going in to the movie.
Instead, the final product is much closer to the blatantly awful Miami Vice, Mann’s last attempt in the director’s seat.
It has indeed been a long while since a movie that I was so highly anticipating has disappointed me so thoroughly as Public Enemies did this past week. And it pains me to say so.
The story of John Dillinger is definitely an interesting one, making the idea for a biopic about him even that more exciting. He was a bandit with celebrity status. In the same glamorizing way that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were made famous, Dillinger robbed banks but stayed akin to the public eye.
His bad boy persona made him a rebel that every man wanted to be friends with and every woman couldn’t resist. After Dillinger successfully climbed the ranks of the FBI’s most wanted list, J. Edgar Hoover developed a special-forces team to specifically thwart “Public Enemy Number One” and arrest him at any cost.
The rest of the story basically becomes a cat and mouse game between head of the department Melvin Purvis and Dillinger himself, ultimately leading to the downfall of the golden age of the bank-robbery.
Now, unfortunately this tiny little summary of John Dillinger’s life does not begin to describe the plot of the film, as there are too many obligatory events that don’t really fill any purpose by the end of the movie.
The audience must endure chase scene after chase scene, while bank robbery sequences are almost non-existent throughout the film. Considering this movie is about a man whose profession was just that, two hardly seems like enough to satisfy.
There are definitely other elements of the screenplay worth disregarding as well. The inclusion of new supporting characters almost all the way through the film takes away from ever getting a feel for who they are. Mann may have done this deliberately to focus on Dillinger himself, but in doing so he still draws a curtain over the chance to get to know his other supporting leads in Billie Frenchette or Purvis.
I mean, not until the end credits rolled was I even aware that Stephen Dorff or Rory Cochrane had roles in this film – that’s how quickly they came and went. Too many characters create too big of a distraction for the audience.
Despite the obvious script problems, the actors do provide some light in an otherwise dismal affair. Depp playing the famous bankrobber is top-notch as he almost always is. His Dillinger makes the audience cheer for him, demonstrating that he isn’t really a villain like the FBI makes him out to be. By year’s end, there probably won’t be room for him in any sort of Oscar contention, but he does a good job nonetheless.
On the other hand though, Marion Cotillard and Stephen Graham display definite Oscar chops in this film, each one deserving any buzz that floats their way. Previous Oscar winner Cotillard plays Dillinger’s gal Billie Frenchette with furious innocence, demonstrating that her Best Actress win from 2007 was no fluke.
And British actor Stephen Graham gives a bravura performance as ruthless time-bomb “Baby Face” Nelson. He removes any detection of his English background in order to perfect the harsh Chicago gangster who works both with and against Dillinger.
Along with some great performances though come some less than stellar ones. Despite his obvious abilities in the acting world, Bale is simply miscast in the role of Melvin Purvis, the man continually eluded by Dillinger. His southern accent is just not as perfect as one would like. It’s almost laughable and his screen time suffers because of it.
There was also significant buzz surrounding Billy Crudup as FBI head administrator J. Edgar Hoover leading up to the release of this film, but I imagine that it will diminish significantly once more people begin to see him in action. He is fine, but in a year where he has already played a fantastic Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, Crudup simply doesn’t bring it all to the table in this film.
Camera work has become something of a staple for Michael Mann in his career, always opting for a handheld, in-your-face filmmaking technique. Public Enemies is no different, and provides a legitimate case for more period pieces to adapt this type of style. It’s an interesting experiment and I feel succeeds in its goal of making this gangster picture more gritty.
The cinematography work though doesn’t save the film from having some of the worst sound editing in recent memory. The levels are just completely off in the film, and intentional or not, it doesn’t work and becomes yet another needless distraction.
Public Enemies is just such a disappointing effort because you come out of the film knowing that there was a good movie in there somewhere. The performances, the costumes and relatively solid cinematography cannot save this mostly dull, overlong Heat wannabe. I haven’t been that close to walking out of a movie in a long, long time.