D: Michael Mann. DP: Dante Spinotti. W: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann & Ann Biderman. Starring: Johnny Depp/Christian Bale/Billy Crudup/Marion Cotillard/Jason Clarke/Stephen Dorff/Rory Cochrane/Giovanni Ribisi/David Wenham/Stephen Lang. (NOTE: Based on Bryan Burrough’s book, “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34”.)
Michael Mann’s latest cinematic offering showcases his newest triple investment film as writer, producer and director of Public Enemies, a retelling of a story of actual cops and robbers. In this case, Chicago cops (newly specialized) attempting to break sweeping bank robberies and crimes, by fellows like Mr. John Dillinger (Depp). A man, recently sprung from nine years behind bars, who picks up right where he left off.
Depp carries a soft bravado about him that gives a subtle complexity to a character barely even sketched within the script. The audience never learns anything in depth about Depp’s Dillinger’s past, which is understandable as it is plausible that very little is concretely known about this man. However, there isn’t ever an inkling as to a motivation for his bank robbing except that he wants the ability to go and do as he pleases and excessive amounts of money allows him that freedom. Justifiable, but not necessarily engaging, especially when very little is shown of his actual lifestyle.
A lifestyle that he drags Cotillard’s Billie into with promises of running away and growing old together. A promise that the script never lets you believe as the lovers are pulled apart just as instantly as they met. Cotillard is perfection in her 1933 wardrobe, dazzles in her few scenes and is able to pull off an American accent, with of course the cute coincidence that her father is explained to be French. Besides a secretary, jail warden and madam of a whore house, she is the only woman given legitimate screen time in the film, so it is a relief she holds her ground well.
The pair is scooted through the story by a long list of cops, special agents, robbers, gamblers and swindlers, so many in fact that Depp’s connections grow foggy amidst so much gun fire. And the main proponent of this gun fire is Bale’s agent Melvin Pervis, a slick shot-gun slung inspector with little else on his mind that ridding Chicago of Depp. Bale is competent and compassionate as the field head honcho on the case, but is given little to do except give directions and shoot his gun. The professional tranquility that his character possess forces the hunt for the bank robbers to remain somewhat civilized and restrained, paralleled by the film’s setting in the American Depression era. An era where apparently little morality discussions were had as not once is Depp’s robber sense of guilt questioned or theorized about. Public Enemies apparently inherently knows what is right or what is wrong.
However, the film is visually conflicted, it appears to compete within itself as to what type of camera to use, visual theme or look to have, or even a style that remains consistent throughout sequences, let alone the film as a whole. More specifically, the use of digital footage in the film is rather jarring and obvious with lighting changing within scenes. Shot on location in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, Public Enemies does not give its setting much justice, stuffing Depp’s Dillinger in as many cars and jail cells as possible, with the best sequences in the film being the escapes from jail. There is not a sense of pacing here, which allows crescendo points in the story to fall flat. Let alone threads of characters and stories lost and underdeveloped. But Public Enemies’ focus is not on the story rather but Dillinger himself, a character that by the film’s end we still hardly know.
And just as elusive as Dillinger became in the public’s eye, will this film become. Lost admist other big summer releases that, like this one, fail to hit the mark it targetted.