I’ll start this off by saying this- Michael Mann is one of my all-time favourite directors. He consistently makes quality, intelligent films, and even his weaker films are streets ahead of most of the competition. I really enjoyed Miami Vice. Despite the negative reaction to it from some people, it’s still a very good film. And Heat is one of the greatest heist films ever. So, in a summer that has so far proven absolutely abysmal, the prospect of a new Mann film had me pretty excited. Public Enemies brings together two great modern actors playing out the story of 1930’s bank robber, John Dillinger.
It’s the 1930’s, and the depression has hit America hard. A wave of crime spreads across America and the criminals are becoming celebrities in their own rights. The leading name amongst the bank-robbers is John Dillinger. J Edgar Hoover is struggling to create the Federal Bureau of Investigation in order to investigate crime across the United States. His primary goal is to take down Dillinger. In order to do this, Hoover gives the task to Melvin Purvis, a young agent who has just taken down Pretty Boy Floyd, another notorious bank robber. Dillinger wants one last job in order to disappear off the map with his girlfriend, Billie Frechette. And Purvis is determined to bring the criminal to justice. At any cost.
There are similarities that can be drawn between Heat and Public Enemies. Both films focus on two men, from different sides of the track. One a master criminal, one a lawman. Neither film paints the criminal as a simple bad guy. And both films have kick-ass gun fights in them. However, Public Enemies is by far the weaker film for a number of reasons. The main problem with Public Enemies is that none of the characters in the film are explored enough. The film is a presentation of facts that misses that very important to film detail, character development. Perhaps it was Mann’s desire to stick to the facts, but the lack of character development unfortunately leaves the film without much in the way of emotional impact.
Mann has recently decided to make the move to digital filmmaking. His first major foray into digital came with Collateral, a contemporary thriller about a hitman. He shot Miami Vice in digital. And in both those films, the digital worked very well with the story. Both were glossy films set in modern day, and the realism that digital brings complemented the stories. However, it for some reason fails in Public Enemies. At times, the digital works very well. At other times, it is a little to jarring. In one particular shoot-out, set at night, the action jumps from a wood, to inside a hotel. While outside, the digital works. However, when we cut to inside, the film looks like it was shot by somebody with a digital camcorder. It’s moments like this that confuse the viewer. And while the scene is action packed, it still takes you out of the film momentarily.
One thing that’s great to see is Johnny Depp finally acting again. After the rubbish pantomime performances in the appalling Pirates of the Caribbean series, Depp finally goes back to what he does best, acting. He’s cast very well as Dillinger. Dillinger was somewhat of a celebrity in his time, so it makes sense to have one of the most famous actors of our time playing him. While the character could have had more depth to him, Depp takes what he’s given and makes the most of it. Which is something that can’t be said for Christian Bale. Don’t get me wrong, Bale has delivered some great performances. But I’m beginning to have my concerns about his acting. After Terminator Salvation, and quite honestly, a flat performance here, I hope that it’s just the scripts that are letting him down. He’s not terrible in Public Enemies, but he’s just not as good as you’d hope.
Marion Cotillard, however, probably delivers the strongest performance in the film. Again, there’s not much for her to do. And after her lengthy enough introduction, she disappears for a great deal of the film. But in the second half of the film, in one scene in particular, she steals the show.
Public Enemies isn’t the great film I’d hoped it would be. But it isn’t terrible either. When measured against the likes of Heat, The Insider, Manhunter and even Miami Vice, it’s not close to Mann’s best. However, Michael Mann’s weaker films are still far better than other filmmakers’ best. And after weeks of what can only be described as shit, it’s nice to have a film that isn’t ludicrously bad. 2009 is proving to be a stinker of a year. But Public Enemies is one of the better films so far.