In the world of Michael Mann, no successful justice is wholly righteous, no bad deed is without a thrill, and whether physical, historical, social or existential, everything boils down to an act of violence. Some may argue that if you’ve seen one of Mann’s often bleak, typically brooding and always beautiful meditations, you’ve seen them all — the buffet of bokeh cinematography, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out digital cinematography that seems captured on a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. But no modern director feels as attuned to crime’s contradictions, the perils of punitive pursuits and the roiling emotions running through both. And few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. To the naysayers this month, we say … C’mon, Mann.
Regardless of aesthetic, period or, perhaps to a studio’s dismay, budget, Michael Mann’s later period found him falling in love with high-end versions of the digital video cameras you used at a barbecue 14 years ago.
He flirted with it in Ali before going all in on it with Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, the latter using it to peculiarly, but invigoratingly, anachronistic effect. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is all vivid daytime contrasts, nubby nighttime vistas and pristine detail. You can savor knotty gunstock pine, scratchy stubble, quivering down on a neck’s nape, steaming gun barrels and last breaths escaping in chilly air.
Thin was the line between digital love and hate for Mann’s critics, some of whom argued Enemies was his all-the-way-gone trade of cohesive themes and airtight stories for faddish form. Back in 2009, it seemed Mann had shifted to tony, fat-budget versions of his early mas macho milieu and that he was unlikely to ever so boldly venture outside of such specifics as he did with The Insider or Ali. Certainly, Public Enemies and its story of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, was intended as a more-serious summer blockbuster for Universal Pictures; while it’s still Mann’s second-highest-grossing U.S. film, it still couldn’t crack the $100 million mark.
And then there’s the present matter that it’s only his second film in 12 years (followed only by 2015’s Blackhat). While Public Enemies is imperfect, and its comparatively low box office and awards footprint to blame for Mann beating more of a retreat these days, it remains perfectly engaging, entertaining and invigorating.
In the hardscrabble thick of the Great Depression, Dillinger robbed banks the way some might seek an MBA today —with diligence and dedication. Drawing out the dragging death of a mentor — as Mann does in an opening prison break — seems gratuitous. But in those agonizing seconds, Dillinger sees the sort of desperation he seeks to avoid but cannot. His scores grew riskier and scarcer, the laidback and charming country boys gave way to cunning Cosa Nostra, and, in time, Dillinger’s pistol-packing Robin Hood persona played itself out with an adoring public.
Depp finds much to be afraid of, and fond of, in a man who purposefully pursues an outsized legacy and myth for himself, and brings a grim vulnerability to confronting the darkest sides of Dillinger’s fantasy. Dillinger could rob a bank in 100 seconds flat, but the 24-frames-per-second of the big screen proves faster. Together, Mann and Depp nail the lucid-dream quality of Dillinger’s last night alive. But Depp doesn’t always feel like the sparking live wire Dillinger had to be and occasionally lacks the requisite zip he brought to parts before his paycheck generally became a punchline.
However, Depp feels eternally dangerous compared to Christian Bale, as bafflingly bland here as he’s ever been. He plays Melvin Purvis, a backwoods Fed tabbed to take down Dillinger by J. Edgar Hoover, played by Billy Crudup with a maddening accent akin to a British Squiggy. (A side note: Between this portrayal and the hilariously bad prosthetics of both J. Edgar and Judas and the Black Messiah, maybe people should just give Hoover a rest on the big screen.)
Purvis’ life (and death) could make for fascinating material, but the movie plays that plot down to Bale’s flatliner levels. Neither does it find much pulse in the idea that both Dillinger and Purvis are smarter-than-average hillbillies — twinned opposites. Instead, Purvis becomes a cipher embodying the “progressive” efforts of the Feds to round up Dillinger and his gang.
Public Enemies crackles whenever Depp shares a scene with Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s paramour, Billie Frechette. In a meeting that’s sexually and sociologically charged, a luminous Cotillard matches Depp gleam for gleam, and when he holds out a red coat for her, it’s like a toreador bracing for a bull’s charge.
Billie’s trust in Dillinger is no less tenuous than that of his most recent jailbreak partners. In a later scene others would overact with trembling bravado, Cotillard easily persuades the audience that she’s a woman who knows the risks of this ride. An admittedly low bar to clear for this particular director, but Cotillard unmistakably has the best role for a woman in any Michael Mann production.
True to his form, he punctuates Public Enemies with stunning action scenes of choreographed chaos and brief, but memorable, turns by tertiary players.
A safe-house shootout depicts the treacherousness of turning a back to a friendly façade. Dillinger’s second prison break is a masterfully timed sequence of shuffling, scampering and strategy. And the movie’s centerpiece is a Wisconsin-woods shootout in which entrails of fog roll through the foothills, bullets whomp dirt, and the fire-spitting Tommy Guns’ reports are like tennis rackets clapped in an eardrum.
And even in a film so orbited around Depp and Cotillard, a handful of actors stand out: Peter Gerety’s pontificating lawyer for Dillinger; Stephen Graham’s wantonly destructive “Babyface” Nelson; Jason Clarke as loyal right-hand man “Red” Hamilton; and Stephen Lang as Texas-Ranger-turned Fed Charles Winstead.
Public Enemies is no masterpiece — unwieldy, patchy in parts and puts too soft a focus on the G-men tracking Dillinger. In that regard, it’s also no Heat. But call it Warmth, with a myth-making dash of The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford.
That’s because it bulks up, with appropriately (and, for Mann, atypically) Midwestern muscle, from a violent version of The Aviator into something like Mann’s Gangs of New York. Always compelling, if a tad too composed, Public Enemies is Mann’s period-piece foray into his pantheon of poetic violence.