We are thrust into the 1930’s without a warning, like being dropped into a cave without a flashlight. We wait for all available light to cast outlines of every object and person and we listen to surrounding sounds ion order to find out where you are. Such is the style of director Michael Mann’s biopic on John Dillinger and his short lived career. It lacks drama and character but it showcases the period with great respect.
Public Enemies opens with John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) being thrown into a prison and within minutes he manages to escape with a group of inmates. The group hides out in a house in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere; we identify Dillinger as a bad guy. Then we see FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) chasing a man that’s armed with a Tommy gun through an apple orchard and with his rifle, Purvis shoots the pursued man dead. We identify Purvis as a good guy, as he is surrounded and backed up by cops. We come to understand that John Dillinger is a notorious gangster and that FBI Agent Melvin Purvis is hot on his trail.
The film’s style is curious because it features the period of the 1930’s but it isn’t shot or directed like a movie from that period; it’s very avant-garde. Michael Mann chose to shoot the movie with an extremely expensive, high definition digital video camera and handheld. Because of that decision two things happen: 1) we have a period-piece that is shot in a semi-documentary style and we feel like we are actually in the 1930’s, 2) we have an ugly looking HD movie that tries to be a period piece but looks like Mann’s traveled back in time with a camcorder. The end-result is paradoxical and is hugely hit and miss; much more miss than hit. Audience’s opinion differs greatly on the final product solely because of the choice Mann made of shooting the movie in High Definition.
Depp wisely plays Dillinger like an average Joe. It allows him to portray the character naturally and the audience relates to him as to a normal man. This version of Dillinger doesn’t care about anything, not even his life. He doesn’t even care that he doesn’t care. He never offers more than a smirk and that’s seen only when he’s having fun with the cops. It’s a nice touch but nothing outstanding. Ultimately Dillinger becomes nothing more your average Joe.
Early in the film, Dillinger picks up a coat-check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) who becomes his woman because he told her so, and even his pick-up sounds threatening.
The fact that the film offers no background to any character within it is a huge step backwards and we eventually don’t care much for Depp’s Dillinger, either.
Bale plays Purvis like a proficient cop and a competent predator. We notice his determination to uphold the law due to his perfect posture, and his cocky style showcases a hotshot that gets work done. The irony here is that cocky cops in movies end up getting killed because they try to be “cool” at the wrong time. Here Purvis is always in control and Bale pulls off this minor character better than Depp does his, and he showcases Purvis with his entire body.
The weakest link of the film is the screenplay, or lack of. Between the opening jail-break and second jail-break in the middle of the movie, a nighttime shoot-out later on, and the eventual death of Dillinger outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago, nothing much happens in between that is of any importance to the plot progression. A screenplay must contain a story and within it, possibly a plot. The story itself must have three acts: a beginning, middle, and an end. Public Enemies does not contain a specific beginning, middle, or end because we are not provided with any information about the characters in the movie, save for their jobs. “You are what you do” is a terrible cliché that incorporates itself with this movie and outside of their jobs, these characters to do exist.
Dillinger is a bank robber/cop killer and because we aren’t given insight as to his past or childhood we forget to care. Purvis is a good cop with a great attitude but what had made him so determined to be so good and insistent? And who is Billie? She’s simply Dillinger’s girl for an X-amount of time. Before Dillinger’s appearance and after his death she ceases to exist.
The film doesn’t drag because the plot never slows down, and that's because there isn’t a plot. That’s an enormous drawback. The conversations in the film don't contain any exposition and drama is never actually developed. However, top marks are earned by the art direction department. Like aforementioned, it feels as if Mann and the cast and crew had traveled back in time to the 1930, bought clothes, cars and guns during that time and shot the movie while enjoying their stay. Then they had traveled back in time to the present and edited the movie. I did feel like I was transported back in time a few times but I didn’t exist before the 1980’s and so I also felt a tad detached.
Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shoots almost every shot in a close-up or tight shot and the camera almost always shakes, which reminds us of Mann’s time travel escapades once again and throughout.
I wanted to like this movie or, at least enjoy it but there is too little to offer. Good costume designs and art direction do not make a movie good. Here, the performances are natural but they lack a bite and conviction because of the lack of drama within the screenplay. The direction is under par because Michael Mann threw all accessible and comprehensible film compositions out of the window in the pre-production stages, and the cinematography is made up of 140 minutes of close-ups showcasing Dillinger, Purvis, and Frechette’s pores.
I like some of Mann’s work but if he insists on shooting the rest his movies from now on entirely in HD I might just skip them altogether.