I feel really sorry for filmmakers who try to make crime movies these days, the standards for that genre are unbelievably high. No matter how great a movie about gangsters gets, the bar has been set so high by the likes of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Scarface that it has become hard to call even the best examples of the genre being made today “great.” Take for example 2007’s American Gangster, a film which is element for element a pretty damn good effort, but when compared to some of the above mentioned films it’s hard to really get too excited about it. Still there have been a few exceptional films like The Departed and City of God which have found their way into the pantheon in spite of the sky high expectations, and one such exception was Michael Mann’s Heat, a sprawling cops and robbers epic which paired Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a thrilling cat and mouse chase through L.A.’s underworld. Because of this and the presence of A-list talent like Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, Mann’s new film about the legendary John Dillinger, Public Enemies, comes with a level of anticipation above the already high standards of crime epics.
John Dillinger was not a gangster in the way Al Capone, Frank Lucas, or even Henry Hill were. He didn’t run any vast criminal conspiracies from dark mansions nor did he hold any legitimate covers. Rather, he was a bank robber in the vein of Bonnie & Clyde; and was, in spite of his massive fame in the eye of the public, considered “public enemy number one” by the newly formed FBI. When the film begins, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is already an established criminal and the film is about the last few months of his life. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, an FBI agent fresh off the apprehension of Pretty Boy Floyd, who has been put in charge of a task force set up to capture or kill Dillinger. Meanwhile, Dillinger is basking in his infamy; he has the fastest cars, the nicest clothes, and he’s also hooked up with a beautiful woman named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). But as Purvis begins to close in it becomes clear that the good times aren’t lasting forever and Dillinger must be increasingly careful in order to survive as public enemy number one.
Another legendary American outlaw was given the film treatment in 2007 with Andrew Dominick’s film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an excellent film but one which did not resonate well with the public. That film had the difficult task of trying to subvert the legendary status of the outlaw at the center, to show Jesse James for the moody killer he was rather than the Robin Hood figure the public believed him to be, all the while examining what it was that created that public fascination. Michael Mann does not take the same approach with his film though one could envision a film where he does. Generally, Mann seems rather disinterested in the way Dillinger is seen by the public and by Dillinger himself for that matter and instead focuses on how he is viewed by the FBI, the criminal underworld, and his girlfriend Billie Frechette.
Mann could have depicted Dillinger as a martyred rebel or as a menace that needed to be put down by brave G-Men, but he never settles into a simple groove like that. It’s almost impossible not to be pretty impressed by Dillinger’s smooth antics but Mann also does not hesitate to show the more violent aspects of his personality. Mann also undermines a lot of Dillinger’s exploits in a brilliant scene where he is told that much more money is made through a secret telephone fraud than by the very public bank robberies he had involved himself in. On the other hand, the movie is hardly an advertisement for the FBI who are often excessive and cruel in their pursuit of Dillinger, and they seem motivated more by public opinion than a genuine desire to make America safer. Ultimately Mann’s depiction is very matter-of-fact, he shows Dillinger doing the very cool looking things that history records him having done and allows the audience to judge. This failure to take sides may seem frustratingly non-committal to some, but I appreciated Mann’s willingness to report without judgment.
It has become a critical custom to examine Johnny Depp performances by trying to identify the sources of his inspiration, this film will be no exception because he is clearly trying to channel James Cagney. This is a pretty obvious choice but also an effective one especially from a physical perspective. Like Cagney, Depp has a certain range of facial movement here, he can be charming Frechette one moment and then have a killer’s look in his eyes as he fires a Tommy Gun the next. But with a Cagney impersonation comes a certain degree of theatricality that one simply has to accept, and this is particularly troublesome in some of the early line readings. In fact that’s true of a lot of people’s acting in the first few scenes of the film, which seem to be liberally homageing the acting mannerisms of thirties cinema in a way that the later scenes aren’t for some reason.
Unlike Depp, there aren’t many reservations I have about Christian Bale, who’s doing some of the best work I’ve seen him do in a large budget film in a long while. Bale has the Elliot Ness role here; he needs to act like a boy scout but also like a pretty tough and smart agent. Bale is pretty restrained throughout, it’s like he realized his character was no match for John Dillinger in the eyes of the audience so he never goes out of his way to seem like some sort of badass. His character is someone who gets results by being smarter, not stronger, than the opposition and he’s not ashamed to ask for help when he realizes he’s outgunned. But it’s Marion Cottilard who steals the show here. I couldn’t stand the overbearing work Cottilard won an Oscar for in 2007’s La Vie En Rose, but I absolutely loved her here. Dillinger is a man who could have hooked up with movie stars and singers if he wanted to, but Cottilard’s work makes it abundantly clear why he was taken with this coat check girl. Cottilard is drop dead gorgeous in the film and sexy but not in a way that makes her look like some sort of fake Maxim model. She really feels like someone who could verbally go toe to toe with Dillinger and you believe her character when she stays loyal to Dillinger even at personal risk.
In his last two films Michael Mann had been experimenting with Digital Photography, a decision which didn’t draw a lot of attention firstly because both Collateral and Miami Vice spent most of their running time under cover of night and secondly because they both inhabited very modern settings. Here however Mann has thrown down the gauntlet and declared a place in the making of large scale period pieces for digital photography. To shoot with this kind of digital camera is basically the 21st Century equivalent of shooting on grainy 16mm film stock, it lacks a certain glowing beauty but in turn it gains a certain documentary-style immediacy. One thing I like about digital photography is that it really seems to see the world the way the human eye does rather than the way movies try to make the world look. We’re so used to seeing the thirties through orange color filters at magic hour that to see it in this raw form seems kind of jarring. Basically it’s the exact opposite of what Sam Mendes did with Road to Perdition, but I’d say it’s a reasonable tradeoff. After all, how many gangster movies that look like The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential do we need? Because Mann chose to shoot with such a modern and reality tinged medium you really feel like you’re in the same room with John Dillinger, you feel like you’re watching gangland shootouts that were caught on tape and put on Youtube in full 1080p.
Speaking of the shootouts, the action scenes in this film are numerous and awesome. These robberies, escapes, shootouts, and car chases are smoothly shot and kinetic. The action is fast paced and immediate like a Bourne film, but they also lack a lot of the more aggressive techniques that have turned some of the people off to that series. In that sense this is sort of the best of both worlds, it’s intense but I doubt the choreography will confuse anyone. Particularly strong is the sound design. Like the shootout in Heat, all the gunshots here are exceptionally loud and realistic which is invaluable in adding to the intensity of the gunplay. I do not for the life of me know why other directors don’t use Michael Mann’s sound library when putting together their shootouts. Highlights include a tense prison escape that opens the film, a massive shootout in a Wisconsin woods that ends brilliantly, a couple of great bank robberies, a tense cat and mouse scene in a dark hotel room, but best of all is Dillinger’s famous wood gun escape in which he fleas a heavily guarded prison without firing a shot. Those simply seeking summer thrills will be just as happy with this movie as those interested in the life of the famous outlaw.
There are a handful of problems to be found: some of the supporting performances are a little weak, there’s a really bad scene in which Dillinger does something really cocky for no reason (I thought for sure it would end up being a dream sequence or something but it wasn’t), and a there are a couple plot points that never really come to fruition. But the movie’s real sin is just that it isn’t a masterpiece, and that’s what some people demand whenever a great director and cast try to make a crime movie, but that’s a bit short sighted. There are a lot of critics who seem to be holding this to a much higher standard than they should and rejecting it just because it isn’t the best movie this genre has ever seen. That’s a bunch of hogwash; this is better than any Hollywood movie I’ve seen in the last seven months and it should be celebrated for that, not punished for daring to have a good pedigree while not quite being Oscar worthy. This is an excellently executed and very entertaining movie I recommend to anyone without hesitation. If you skip this movie to see a two hour toy commercial or something this weekend you should be ashamed.
***1/2 out of four