Director Michael Mann, auteur of Heat and The Insider, returns to the screen with the Depression-era cops and robbers movie Public Enemies. On the one hand it has a lot going for it: Johnny Depp as the anti-hero John Dillinger, Christian Bale as the anti-villain federal agent, intense gun battles, Depp casually smoldering in countless close-ups, not to mention shedding tears for his lady Billie Frechette (Cotillard). Surely, this would be enough to win over the masses. Based on the reactions of those around us at the screening, our guess is that it won’t be, even though it is a good movie. Why not? The fault lies with the director.
Mann takes a very stark approach to cinema, keeping characterizations and dialogue to a minimum, and emphasizing the action. Considering his characters are relentless criminals and crime fighters, there isn’t much room for a life outside of this pursuit. This tight focus on their exploits creates realism, but can also be detached and suffocating. Mann is sort of the opposite of Tarantino. Don’t expect any pop culture chitchat or pseudo-metaphysical debates about foot massages to liven things up.
The film begins abruptly without any credits — Dillinger is already under arrest and being driven to prison. But when he arrives, a pre-arranged prison break is already under way. Dillinger and his ruthless gang bust out before they were even in. A series of bank robberies follow, which puts Dillinger in the cross hairs of J. Edgar Hoover, father of the FBI, and perhaps the most hated man in 20th Century American history. Hoover is obsessed with bringing Dillinger to justice and enlists star crime fighter Melvin Purvis (Bale) to head the investigation. This cat-and-mouse chase becomes the focus of the film with neither side willing to blink. The story does drift at times in its second act with Bale and Cotillard often absent, but for the most part the story is a non-stop parade of bank robberies, shootouts, and multiple prison breaks. Mann films shoot-outs with a visceral intensity unlike anyone else. Yet no love for the car chase.
The film is called Public Enemies, as in plural, for a reason. Mann is quite critical of the federal government’s extra-legal crime-fighting methods, which in the film include the new techniques of wiretapping and torturing dying prisoners and women. Hoover tells Purvis to take off the white gloves just like they did over in Italy. The Fed’s drift toward fascism is driven home when we see Hoover giving medals to some kids who surely were cast to resemble Nazi youth.
Mann tells the story in a new way, for him at least, with a hand-held Hi-Def camera style. His past films are often visually epic in scale, with his lonely characters set against vast cityscapes. In Public Enemies the camera is jammed up in the actors’ faces. Perhaps this approach was taken to keep the action close and the budget down; i.e., maintaining historical authenticity in wide shots would have cost more money.
Public Enemies left me with an indescribable, subdued feeling for several hours. I can’t imagine it’s a feeling that will build a strong word of mouth. This is a very well-crafted film but not a natural blockbuster. A thinking man’s action movie? Yeah, let’s call it that.