Director Michael Mann marches to the beat of his own drummer and I dig him for that. He’s practically an indie director operating in mainstream Hollywood and gets to play with a lot of money and yet his films tend to lack commercial appeal once you strip away the stars and the premise. Regardless of what you think of “Ali” or “Miami Vice”, were those films what you expected? With “Public Enemies”, Mann has pulled yet another switcheroo, pulling in viewers with a tantalizing promise of “Heat” with 1930s gangsters and instead providing a cool and cerebral take on self-reflexive celebrity that may be intellectually rewarding but delivers few thrills.
Choosing to open with a bang, “Public Enemies” breaks out with a prison break-out with John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) engineering an escape of former associates only to have his main target, Walter Dietrich die during the escape. Refusing to slow down, the film takes us to one of Dillinger’s safe houses and then we get to see him rob a bank before we’re suddenly introduced to his eventual antagonist, Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who at the time of Dillinger’s crime spree is busy gunning down criminal “Pretty Boy” Floyd (Channing Tatum in a “blink-or-you’ll-miss-it” role) and moving up in the ranks of what will become the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Naturally, the film’s attempt at momentum comes from the chase where Purvis attempts to capture and/or kill Dillinger and Dillinger watches his care-free life style crumble away as justice closes in around him.
This is the bare plot but “Public Enemies” wants to stay as detached from gritty reality as possible in terms of history or character. Many have questioned Mann’s decision to using digital cameras to shoot a film set in the 1930s. It eventually becomes clear that Mann is using the cameras for the glossy effect they provide as his film isn’t about cops and robbers but about notions of reflexive perception and how men choose to see themselves and their actions and the dangers of buying into your own hype. It’s a post-modern concept and one where Mann wants to utilize modern technology.
Sadly, the film is more about an IDEA than story or characters. It’s shockingly cerebral and cold for a gangster film with his leading actors having hardly anything to work with. The film revolves around Dillinger (Purvis is almost a non-entity in terms of character; he’s a plot device and a poorly implemented one at that) and Depp understands that Dillinger is a man whose confidence is his greatest asset and his greatest weakness. He speaks in platitudes and doesn’t think about tomorrow (even though his heists show he’s an expert at planning), and approaches the world not like a real person, but like a Hollywood facsimile. The film’s arc is about Dillinger slowly having reality crush his fantasy world of bank robberies and notoriety but we never learn what turned him into that man in the first place. The film refuses to touch anything real until the third act when Dillinger has lost everyone and is clinging to his former life by the skin of his teeth. But this glossy reflection ill-serves the story because there’s nothing for audiences to grab on to except THE IDEA. Moreover, it’s an idea we’ve already seen explored and rarely is it particularly fulfilling. The criminal realizing his legend in his own time was done far better in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” because that film not only had a greater confidence in its entire production, but it understood that audiences need something real for a story based in history (unless it’s outright parody) and that’s what Andrew Dominik and Casey Afflect provided in the character of Bob Ford.
I can appreciate directors for not giving audiences what they expect. Playing into audience expectations can usually be the kiss of death because it will result in a boring and predictable movie. But “Public Enemies” is a middling film that loves what it’s about but has no real passion for its own story. The big action scenes with handheld camera shots and deafening audio mix (I heard every single bullet fired) feel like over-compensating, as if the film is apologizing for not giving an exciting gangster flick but a more cerebral take that feels out of place at the height of the summer movie season. I love films that are intellectually engaging but they have to take me new places and provide fresh ideas. Being entertaining doesn’t hurt either. Sadly, “Public Enemies” is too slick and cold in its reflexivity and there’s nothing for audiences to grab on to.
Rating —– C