Review: Public Enemies
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Michael Mann likes patterns. At least, that's what “Public Enemies,” the celebrated director's fact-based account of the heyday of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, suggests. Immediately indentifiable are the visual patterns. Teaming again with Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer who lensed “Heat” and “The Insider,” Mann frequently fills the screen with striking compositions of graphic designs based on line and repetition: stripes, bars, hallways, windows, flickering switchboards, pretty trees all in a row. Images like these paint “Enemies” as more of an art film than a gangster picture, and other, far less effective aesthetic choices confirm that “art film” was a concept at the forefront of Mann's mind throughout the production process. For me, though, the pattern in which Mann chose to tell this story became the most conspicuous: a blandly systematic sequence of events that everyone's seen before. Think of “Enemies” as “American Gangster” – or even “Heat” – with the clock turned back a little further and without the immersive thrill or epic tone. In terms of period pics about men with guns, Mann's film boasts few distinguishing factors aside from its look, and it's a mismatched look to boot. It's clear the movie was intended to be something special; however, it's anything but. It eventually grows tiresome and is, in the long run, forgettable.
Written by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, the script is an adaptation of the non-fiction book, “Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34,” by Brian Burrough. The title of the book basically sums up the plot of the movie. Mann kicks things off in 1933 at an Ohio penitentiary (hence the stripes) where, disguised as a prisoner, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is brought in by a partner only to break out his captured crew members. Said crew then high-tail it to Chicago, where they proceed to rob multiple banks under Dillinger's cool and calculated supervision. Elsewhere, in an apple orchard (hence the pretty trees), federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is introduced while gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd, another hot criminal commodity of the time (played, inexplicably, in one brief scene, by hot Hollywood commodity of today Channing Tatum). The kill makes Purvis the top choice of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to run the Bureau's Chicago office, a job that comes with the chief directive of capturing Dillinger, a.k.a. “Public Enemy Number One.” So begins a shootout-filled, cat-and-mouse chase that drags on far longer than it should. There are some amusing touches (such as Dillinger's uncanny talent for escaping right under authorities' noses), and at least one gripping gun fight set in and around a wooded hideout, but most of the time I found myself unconcerned with where all the bullets were headed. Before long, I was more than ready for the G-men to nail Dillinger, which – as should come to no surprise to those who know their history – they do, in 1934, the year that marked the end of “America's greatest crime wave.”
“Enemies” does little to make Dillinger an interesting character. In scenes such as an early one in which he throws a foolish cohort out of a car rather than kill him, we learn he was ruthless but reasonable (he also let bank customers keep their money during robberies). In scenes in which he proclaims things like, “I'm having too much fun today to be thinking about tomorrow,” we learn he had every intention of continuing his “vocation” until his death. In scenes such as a later one in which he waltzes right into the FBI's Dillinger Squad headquarters, we learn he reveled in the rush of coming within inches of being caught. In scenes with Billie Frechette, Dillinger's devoted love interest played by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (“La Vie En Rose”), we're meant to learn he had a softer side and interests beyond cleaning out vaults. But the relationship has virtually no potency, and Dillinger has virtually no dimension. Everything that's presented about him – his celebrity, his simple pleasures (“football, movies, fast cars, whiskey”), his penchant for one-liners – feels like a fact from a book and, in that way, perhaps the filmmakers remained too close to their source material. By the end, I knew much about the man, but I never felt as though I knew (or cared about) who he really was.
For Depp, Dillinger is a faint star in a career filled with brilliant performances. I was going to employ a cliché and say the actor phones it in, but I won't, because he never does. Compared to most, his work is effortlessly, magnetically convincing. But compared to his own standard of excellence, Depp's heart is noticeably absent here, possibly because his character isn't given a heart to convey. Maybe Mann and company got it right. Maybe Dillinger was heartless and lacked dimension. All I know is, it makes for humdrum cinema. Bale, another great actor, fares even worse. His Purvis – for whom he adopts a voice that's a hybrid of Dubya's southern twang and Obama's emphatic declarations – is flat, flat, flat. He hunts bad guys, finds more effective ways of hunting bad guys, talks about hunting bad guys, and that's about it. There's no depth of character, no internal conflict. Again, this may have been the way it all went down, but I was as bored as a kid in church. There are two scene-stealers: Cotillard, who despite her struggle with the English language is a radiant charmer, and Stephen Lang (“Tombstone”), all killer composure as Charles Winstead, the Texas Ranger brought in to school Purvis' men on how to better catch those pesky bad guys. Cotillard and Lang share the film's final scene. It's a great moment, albeit too little, too late.
By and large, the most deplorable thing about “Enemies” is the manner in which Mann chose to shoot it. Sticking to a stylistic pattern that started with 2004's “Collateral” and continued with 2006's “Miami Vice,” Mann captures the action on high-definition digital video, a medium that, for all its sharpness (you can see every pore in Depp's movie-star mug), tends to create trails when recording movement. The director also had his cinematographer go hand-held, shooting everything from prison breaks to courtroom scenes with a distracting, dizzying wobbly-cam. This docudrama look clashes terribly with the subject matter, and sucks much of the beauty out of the aforementioned visual motifs, Coleen Atwood's elegant period costumes, even Elliot Goldenthal's sweeping dramatic score. If it's art film experimentation Mann was after, here's hoping he's had his fill. “Enemies,” which unfolds as it should rather than in a way that's exciting and unpredictable, is a movie that serious filmgoers and even critics are practically programmed to like: “Not into 'Transformers 2?' Here's a serious picture with serious stars by a serious director!” Seriously, though, while it ain't as bad as “Transformers 2” (is anything?), it ain't that great at all.