Public Enemies (2009)
On the face of it Public Enemies appears to have all the ingredients of a good film. There is the promise of Michael Mann whose film Heat, which I recently re-watched, is one of the most iconic thrillers of the 1990’s. Combine that with the talented Johnny Depp and a big signing in Christian Bale for the supporting role and you have a pretty potent recipe for a decent film, at the very least. I entered with reasonable expectations, however as time slowly went by I was left feeling tired and a little ripped off. After the gunpowder residue dissipates what you are left with is a half decent story ruined by some very basic flaws that a veteran director like Mann should really not be making.
Let’s start with the positives; Public Enemies is gorgeous to look at. Mann has adopted some cutting edge HD camera technology for PE; for example he has combined Sony F23s with DigiZoom lenses to provide a much sharper image than that of his other recent efforts like the grainy Miami Vice. The new HD quality cameras more than justified some of the electrifying and jarring tommy-gun shootouts and some of the close-ups looked spectacular. The striking detail and general look of the film is definitely PE’s strongest area. There were also some very interesting scenes including one hair raising moment in the police station, however the opening scene in a local state prison is by far the most superior of the film; it was brutal, exciting and everything a Michael Mann film should be. Johnny Depp is his usual charismatic, cool self who brings a lot of charm to the Dillinger character where a lot of others would fail. However, these positives are few and far between.
Unfortunately, despite having a decent storyline, this film fails on many levels that not even PE’s beautiful looks and the occasional good scenes are enough to warrant redemption. The first thing I have to mention purely out of sheer annoyance is the shoddy camera work of Michael Mann. It seemed for much of the movie Michael had been directing whilst riding a washing machine, as there were some needlessly shaky camera movements. I considered Miami Vice to be pretty bad in that respect but it seems now Mann is trying so very hard to keep the audience interested by resorting to clumsy, jumping action shots. There are also some useless, whooshing, tracking shots that are a regular fixture of the film straight from the off; these are equally off-putting. Depp’s performance as John Dillinger is below par of his usual standard, but that is mainly due to the terribly clichéd, Bogart-esque dialogue. Despite this he still retains his usual charm and charisma that make his characters so watchable. Depp does have his moments in PE so fans will certainly not be disappointed; we all know it’s a stop-gap between now and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which looks very interesting so far. The rest of the cast tend to blend in with the furniture and Christian Bale produces a typically wooden performance, topped off with a particularly dodgy Southern accent. Marion Cotillard was unconvincing as Billie Frechette and the onscreen chemistry between her and Depp was almost non-existent. PE actually managed to stretch out to 2hrs 20mins, about an hour of which is pretty pointless. You might find yourself drifting off in stages and focusing on other things such as: Where did Emile De Ravin go? There are also major problems buried deep within the core of the plot that were obvious pieces of poor writing. Some characters disappear without explanation (Like De Ravin), there are massive plot chasms and pointless scenes that serve no purpose to the story whatsoever. Considering Michael Mann is treading in familiar territory with the gangster genre this is a very poor effort; top-notch gangster flick this is not.
Seen as I have given PE a short but brutal slating I feel I should return to find some more positives about it, but I just can’t. It isn’t a film I’d reccomend to anyone as it fails on so many practical levels. PE had potential to be a pretty decent film and had all the right ingredients but Michael Mann just tried way too hard with this film and as a result it seemed muddled and even amatuerish. I can see the direction Mann was going with this one and in some ways it’s not a bad film but all those little niggles and poor performances almost across the board pretty much knock this film into mediocrity for me. Public Enemies has become like so many other forgettable and disappointing big budget movies of 2009, such as Transformers 2 and Wolverine, that have made this year a pretty bad year for film in general. Hopefully Mann can up the ante for his next film and regain his former flair with the action thriller genre.
I am forced to agree with most of what Dave says above, but having had the film sink in slightly longer I think I’ve grown to appreciate what was actually a success in this movie. It is still however, a complete juxtaposition in places between the really really good and the really rather bad. The first thing you notice is definitely how crisp this film looks. It’s one of the most aesthetically striking live action movies I’ve seen in a long time. Everything on screen is beautifully captured and the level of detail in some of the shots really shows why HD is the cutting edge. Grating against this throughout the first half hour however is some camerawork that feels like it’s bordering on the amateur. I just didn’t understand the choice for some the shots. In places you could only just make out what could have been a well framed action shot as the camera was zoomed in and shaking like an upset raver having a fit. My assumption is Mann is trying to suck us into the action but until the second half of the film I just felt a little disorientated and annoyed because there were scenes passing by I could clearly tell were good but couldn’t see they were.
In contrast to Dave I felt that Depp was his usual enigmatic self and was the biggest success of this movie outside of the visuals. Dillinger was originally going to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio when the movie started development but the writers strike forced film Shantaram (2011) to be pushed back, giving Depp the time to fit PE into his schedule; and thank goodness it did. Without Depp’s peerless ability to infuse a character with a certain charm and roguish wit Dillinger could have come off as arrogant and annoying. Depp however keeps the character the right side of favourable and allows us to side with this stylish Robin Hood.
His delivery of some lines I think pushed them just beyond parody and I have to admit allowing myself a smile at comebacks such as when Bale‘s Mr Purvis asks “What keeps you up at night Mr Dillinger?”, and Dillinger looks up and perfectly seriously replies “Coffee”. Even the more saccharine lines like “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars… and you. What else you need to know?” are just about saved by Depp’s cool as he plays his ‘boyish good looks’ card over his more famous ‘sexy weirdo’ facade. Mann even fits in a nod to the aforementioned Heat borrowing a line directly when Dillinger see’s a customers money on the counter during one of the bank job scenes and remarks “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours.” (originally said by De Niro) which is a nice touch.
Ultimately this is a good film ruined by it’s many minor niggles. There are just too many things that build up to stop this being a completely fulfilling movie. I was frustrated by the camera in the beginning, bored by the slightly pedestrian plot in the middle and by the end left a little underwhelmed by the experience as a whole. There is a good movie in here, some excellent scenes dotted about and stunning attention to detail (a woodland gunfight was filmed at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, WI which is the actual location where the gunfight between Dillinger and the FBI took place in 1934). I personally enjoyed the music and sound effects (including some exhilarating gunshots) though admittedly poor score and I’d recommend seeing it in the cinema purely as on a less detailed screen and sound system you’d miss half of what makes this movie watchable. Sadly though in the end, regardless of the screen size, the criminals here might just leave you feeling as ripped off as the banks.