Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Billy Crudup
Director: Michael Mann
Writer(s): Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman
Cinematography: Dante Spinoti
Original Score: Elliot Goldenthal
Running Time: 140 Mins.
Michael Mann, undoubtedly one of the most accomplished directors working in the movie business in the last 20 years with such cinematic triumphs to his name as Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans and Heat. All very different in one sense but very similar in another, what they share is the idea of one mans obsession with a goal, something he strives to achieve and within those themes there is very little space for strong female charcters. All of these factors followed through Mann’s films of the “noughties” with one notable change, his choice to shoot on digital giving the visuals a obvious sheen and a sense of immediacy which works exceptionally well, in some cases.
Much like David Fincher, Mann has really hit the ground running shooting on digital, something which made both Collateral and Miami Vice excellent in conveying a sense of documentary style realism and a sheen befitting this Hi-Def age we have become accustomed too. However the evidence would seem to suggest that digital is not appropriate for all genres, as is true of any film stock, meaning directors and indeed cinematographers should be savvy enough recognise which films will and won’t benefit from the stock choices and shooting styles they adopt.
WHich brings me to Mann’s latest crime saga following Heat, this is yet another tale of manly obsessions, playing cop lawman against a top bank robber however this is a totally different beast to Heat in both style and substance. One would imagine if Heat were shot on digital it would certainly look fantastic (not that it doesn’t already!) but choosing to lens Public Enemies in this way really doesn’t fit. Set in the 1930’s during the great depression we follow John Dillinger (the Robin Hood of his day) as played by Johnny Depp, as he is imprisoned, twice no less, escapes and commits his dastardly robberies whilst finding time to fall for the beautiful Billie Frechette (Cottilard) and evade the newly formed FBI fronted by Bale’s Melvin Purvis.
Dillinger is driven by…well, apparently not alot. He says he is having too much fun yet there is very little evidence of this, and the script fails to get beneath what made Dillinger tick leaving the ever dependable Bale to do all the leg work, as always Depp is charming in his characterisation and you will be won over by his carefree portrayal which demonstrates that he is capable of more than just zany characters, and can actually act in a subtle and nuanced way when called upon. But without a solid script to sink his teeth into it all seems rather shallow. Bale similarly is badly served in that department, but has an intensity that suggests there is more to his character than the flash he exhibits and is more than just Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) lackey, often struggling with the lengths he must go to to get the job done.
As ever women are badly served by Mann, though with his apparent disinterest in the female psyche in mind Cottilard is outstanding in her vulnerability and also child like naivity in dating Dillinger, and it is in her that the film finds its heart. As supporting characters bounce in and out of the story you never get a feel for any of them, something which was achieved so well in Heat. Actors like David Wenham, Stephen Dorff and Giovanni Ribisi get no grandstanding moments meaning they will likely fail to even register with you come the final curtain, or their inevitable demise. The only person to make any kind of impression amongst the role call is Stephen Graham who at least looks to be having some fun with the rather OTT “Baby Face” Nelson.
Which brings me full circle to Mann’s chosen style again, a depression set film should set a period in our minds, and that period is not a high tech or glossy one, for example Sam Mendes Road To Perdition or De Palma’s The Untouchables both capture the era with panache, this is a fundemental part of 30’s set pictures, gangster pictures no less, there should be a raw and gritty but sometimes elegant way to how we view this time. Not in a shaky handheld way where the close ups reveal Johnny Depps make up or that he has had too much eye shadow applied!
On the plus side the shoot outs are, as expected, fantastic. Punchy and with each bullett piercing as it should be, this is something that does befit hi-def and the definite highpoint has to be the ambush on the ranch at night, no one can direct scenes as intensely as Mann and it is in this reminder that you will feel, not that Public Ememies is a bad film, simply a misjudged and shallow one.
Public Enemies is a film of two halves, one deeply disappointing, another stylish and punchy. If it wasn’t shot in Mann’s beloved digital, many of the other flaws could well have been overlooked. Though bear thsi in mind, a disappointing Mann film is a hell of a lot better than many directors best efforts.