Public Enemies (2009, Michael Mann)

Michael Mann switches between scenes of a master criminal and the cop assigned to catch him, until the criminal is caught because he came back for his girl… but enough about HEAT, here’s Public Enemies.

Johnny Depp is bank robber John Dillinger – previously played by Martin Sheen, Robert Conrad and Warren Oates – and Christian Bale is devoted cop Melvin Purvis – previously played by Will Patton and Dan Cortese. I also recognized appearances by Leelee Sobieski (girl Johnny takes to the movies when he’s killed at the end) and Giovanni Ribisi (wannabe train robber), but failed to recognize Stephen Dorff (my The Gate fan club membership is in peril) and Billy Crudup (as an amusing J. Edgar Hoover). Also apparently the paranoid guy from A Scanner Darkly played an FBI agent and Duke in the G.I. Joe movie played Pretty Boy Floyd.

Sometimes the digital camerawork yielded interesting perspective and depth of field effects, but sometimes in the indoor scenes it just looked like a made-for-TV movie. It’s weird that a low-light movie like Collateral looked less video-like than this one.

K. Phipps:

Mann fills the background with a lot of fascinating detail but often has a hard time keeping the foreground in focus. Sometimes literally: Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti opt for hard, handheld digital-video images. These lend a sense of excitement to some of the action scenes—particularly a thrilling nighttime chase through the Wisconsin woods—but often give the film an unpleasantly unfinished look. That unfortunately matches an unfinished feel. Neither Depp nor Bale get a chance to get beneath the surface of their characters, supporting characters bleed together, and a love story between Depp and his moll (Marion Cotillard) never finds a heartbeat.

Mann, as ever, remains a master of methodical pursuit, but as the film inches toward Dillinger’s fateful night at Chicago’s Biograph Theater, he doesn’t offer much beyond methodical pursuit. Depp goes about the business of not getting caught; Bale goes about the business of catching him. In the end it doesn’t really come to mean all that much.

I wasn’t sure what to think about this – it felt flat and over-long, a procedural thriller without the procedure or the thrills, a character bio-drama without much character, and a digital look that called too much attention to itself for reasons unknown. I’d been looking forward to it so much, then it wasn’t even that I didn’t like it; I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to like.

But that was before reading a convincing article by M.Z. Seitz for IFC, which makes the movie seem like a good case to study, if not a killer fun time at the theater. Maybe I’ll appreciate it more next time, focusing on the digital video’s sense of immediacy and reality, and the “moment-to-moment shifts in emotion,” instead of trying to enjoy the story and the acting. God, I’m such a failure as an auteurist… speaking of which, a whole bunch of articles in The Auteurs this month should help me feel worse about not understanding Michael Mann (and there’s an epic article/video series at Moving Image Source).