As we are close to capping off our “Michael Mann Week” here at The Film Nest, I have a question that might really need to be addressed: Has Michael Mann lost his magic touch? In reviewing all of Michael’s works in this week’s Michael Mann: Career Retrospective piece, I didn’t see any point in his career where he had back to back missteps as a director. Well, with Public Enemies, I am sad to report, this occurrence has happened. Coming on the heels of the major let down (at least in box office) that was 2006′s Miami Vice, Mann was sure to hit at least a solid double with mega-stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale on base, right? Unfortunately, it is more like a bloop single at best.
Public Enemies is a biography of sorts, tracking the travails of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, in the depression era 1930′s. The film opens in 1933, four years into the economically woeful situation in the United States, and the height of Dillinger’s fame and fortune. Yes, I said fame and fortune, though neither are remotely explained. I’m still trying to determine what this movie was: a cops and robbers heist film (maybe); a character study (no way); a love story (more than anything, perhaps). Public Enemies seemingly tries to be all of these and is none of these at the same time.
We follow Depp’s Dillinger busting his way out of prison in the opening sequence. Confusion and gun fire reign, who’s who and what is what are unknown, and seemingly unnecessary, as we watch what unfolds on the screen before our eyes. Dillinger’s gang is living large through robbing banks, perpetually on the run from the law. Enter Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis, based on the true to life individual, promoted to head of the newly formed FBI, ready to hunt down Dillinger and uphold justice. Seems like it could be a nice little setup, but to what avail?
We see Dillinger rob banks and meet a lovely young woman whom he instantly falls in love with, the worthy Oscar winning actress Marion Cotillard, and the only questions that remain are; will his life of crime catch up to him or can he go on living lavishly forever? I think you know how this one goes. Dillinger is a man living in the moment, which sounds great, if we cared at all. We don’t because there is little character development, and what does take place is just thrown into a cycle of heist, arrest, break out; rinse, wash, repeat.
So yeah, Dillinger gets caught by Purvis and his men (history tells us this, hence its not a spoiler), only for Dillinger to somehow break out of prison again, and end up on the run. While this all may be based on true events, the way in which Mann “organizes” the film is more chaotic than controlled. There seems to be scene after scene of disconnectedness, while even when one thing leads to another, there is no emotional involvement in what happens.
This could all essentially be excusable, meanwhile, while it’s the middle of summer and audiences want to have fun. But alas, there is little fun to be had here. There are some shootouts, but no joviality in the plot, as in say, Road To Perdition, which is a heavier film in tone anyway, but still allowed us to have some laughs and thrills with the characters. The much ballyhooed shootout in the forest is the most exciting set piece in the film, and still, it reeked of mediocrity for the most part. Some people die, some don’t, but the lack of strong characters never help the film around all of its continuity issues.
Depp and Bale are fine, and what little acting that is required is relatively good throughout, there’s just not that much required. A vast array of characters come into play; various agents and gangsters (Frank Nitty, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson), a madam for hookers, and of course, the love story with Cotillard which really “drives” the film. Steven Dorff, Channing Tatum (in a huge 30 seconds of screen time, hand him an Oscar!) and my kiss of death, Giovanni Ribisi, all show up. But they are all thrown into a loosely structured framework that simply doesn’t add up to much. Have I said that yet?
This is not a summer blockbuster but rather your average, run of the mill actioner, with either a middling script, or poor editing and execution, most likely both. It’s not like this group struck out on three pitched balls, but its just not nearly what you would expect from all the talent involved. You have to blame Mann and now he has misfired twice in a row. You might start to question where he will go from here, but last I checked Brett Ratner still has a career, so I guess Mann’s safe too.