Some would credit Director Michael Mann as the undisputed king of cop vs. robber crime epics. Creating TV shows like “Miami Vice” and “Crime Story,” plus his perfect opus “Heat” gives him all of the street cred needed to tackle the true-life story of notorious bank robber John Dillinger and the G-Men commissioned to take him down. An apparent slam-dunk for the maestro of modern shoot-em ups. After coming off his lousy remake of “Miami Vice,” I would’ve expected Mann to step his game. As they say in the 1930’s gangster movies of old: No dice.
1933: The brazen John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) breaks his partners-in-crime out of prison so he can continue his wave of bank robberies across the U.S. Midwest. F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) becomes increasingly humiliated by Dillinger’s elusiveness, and orders the agent who tracked down and killed Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum in a hilariously brief role) to find Dillinger and put a stop to his reign of terror. That agent is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who after a severely botched attempt to capture Babyface Nelson (Stephen Graham), assigns some tough Texas lawmen, led by Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang) to his team of flatfoots. Meanwhile, Dillinger strolls amongst the Chicago public shielded by the underworld and the public who fancies him a folk hero. While eating in a fine restaurant, he meets the woman destined to become the love of this life, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). As Dillinger continues to get away with heists, Purvis and his agents resort to more brutal tactics in order to flush him out.
Within the first fifteen minutes I noted that Mann used a style too modern for such a vintage story. Shaky-cams contrasting with quick-motioned acting and extreme close ups gives the audience no time to soak in the time period, the atmosphere, or even to get a good look at any of the actors. For instance, I didn’t even recognize the menacing character actor James Russo until his death scene finally allowed a still enough shot for me to take a decent gander at his face. The camera and editing were just too darned kinetic.
Depp smirks. That’s what I remember most about his acting range in the film. He’s so used to playing weird, over-the-top characters, I suspect he’s forgotten how to play anything less than a freak of a human being. It’s not that his Dillinger is over-the-top and it’s not that Depp is a bad actor (he’s usually the best of the best). I feel Depp was miscast. He didn’t make me like Dillinger. Instead he came across as a creepy bully, only getting one emotional chance to shine when he witnesses his lover, Billie get captured by police.
The script did Bale’s Purvis an even bigger injustice by giving him so little to do and portraying he and his G-Men as borderline incompetent. Bale’s recent role choices have him appearing mercenary rather than his former picky and calculating self. He runs the risk of overexposing himself right out of the limelight, especially if he takes mediocre roles like this one.
Billy Crudup nails his brief role as the all-powerful F.B.I. crime czar, Hoover. I would’ve preferred more time with him and less with Dillinger. Ditto for Marion Cotillard who delivers the finest performance as the gangster’s sweet and misguided squeeze. She shows more range than any of the other lead actors combined.
Now if may jump up on my soapbox and loudly complain about how terrible digital video looks during night scenes. With the cheaper technology finding favor with the biggest of filmmakers, it would appear that some directors/cinematographers have yet to develop their skill with the medium. Either that or the medium’s flawed. Case-in-point: The most exciting action scene in the film where Purvis and his team have Dillinger, Nelson and their crew surrounded in a woodland motel at night; looks like it was shot on a low-res, grainy phone camera. As excellent as the action unfolded, I couldn’t believe how amateurish the image looked. Last year, David Lynch proved to me that he couldn’t make digital look good with his epic failure, “Inland Empire.” I’m going to accuse Mann of the same deficiency… but only for nighttime scenes in “Public Enemies.”
Despite those problems, the fully-lighted, sepia-toned scenes look fine. The time period appears magically brought to life and the all-star cast constantly gives you someone to recognize on screen. A few magnificent scenes parlayed throughout the picture don’t add up to a well-rounded picture. It pales in comparison to the lush and violent crime movies of the 1970’s. As a modern summer movie, it has all the ingredients to please an eager crowd who probably won’t notice its glaring shortcomings. In that respect, I believe we have a box-office winner.
As for me, I’m not satisfied. I feel disappointed that Mann can’t resurrect that gritty magic he created so masterfully in the 80’s and 90’s. I’m sure he will try to find it again his next project, “Frankie Machine” starring Robert De Niro as a retired hitman who gets lured back into the old biz. I’ll look forward to that one simply because with his talent, Mann’s bound to get that old magic back one of these days.
3 out of 5 stars.
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