Michael Mann has shot his films on digital at least since Collateral (2004). I have little to object of this methods because frankly, I couldn’t tell the difference. Public Enemies is his third film shot in digital, and mostly because it doesn’t work (at least for me), now I know the difference. I couldn’t, however, pin point on what doesn’t work with digital. Perhaps, and this is just an opinion, based on what I saw and felt during the film, that unlike his previous two, this film is a 1930-period piece and the stunning color and crisp picture doesn’t seem to fit. Further, even with technical issues aside, I won’t be so hasty to name this film into my favorite Mann’s films. Given time, perhaps, most likely, this film will grow on me. But maybe, given the names (Mann, Depp, Bale, Cotillard) I had expected a bit too much, and left underwhelmed.
Based on the life of real bank robber, John Dillinger, this film depicted his decline as a notoriously known bank robber famous enough to earn him a title of Public Enemy #1. More drama than a thriller, the film pitted Dillinger (Depp) against special agent Melvin Purvis (Bale). It begins with Dillinger already a famous robber, and the Federal Investigation under J.Edgar Hoover (Crudup) are already aimed and even request an additional budget to bring him down. During the earlier scenes, we saw how the film describes Dillinger. About how he saw himself, what drives him forward, and about his view on Billie (Cotillard) as his true love.
One need to remember that this film isn’t trying to be epic, a blown-out thriller that ended with grandeur showdown at the end. The film chooses the beginning of the end of Dillinger’s career. No origin bullshits, no look back in the past. Just like Dillinger himself, the film stay focused on the present, knowing nothing about tomorrow and make little use of yesterday. At 2 hours 20 minutes, only a good director and a strong script could keep such length in shape. “Public Enemies” is one of those films.
This film is littered with Mann’s visual style. Shaky handheld cams (might be a turn-off for some people), crisp picture, stand-out colors and although the film offers a little action scenes, when it does, it was quite engaging. The bullets are loud and convincing, the tension is palpably clinging like a tight drape covering the whole scene. The shootout in Little Bohemia is practically a standout. Mann’s decision to use handhelds in the scene might step on a wrong foot for some people, but for me, it was okay, because I had my fair share on FPS games and it felt like I was within the scene itself. My favorite scene however, is the traffic light scene. It was quiet, but the tension is gripping.
Depp as Dillinger is a natural choice. He was charming, confident, and eventually, desperate and lonely. Bale as Purvis doesn’t receive much sympathy but in a one brief scene, we are shown that he was also a man with compassion only obsessed with his work. Cotillard is a beautiful beautiful woman, anyone who couldn’t see it should be ashamed. She doesn’t have much during the first half of the film but she was great nonetheless, and perfect choice for Billie given the last scene, “Manhattan Melodrama.” However, as Dillinger and Purvis are meant to be put face-to-face, I had expected that their first time on screen would at least be as great as the coffee shop scene in Heat (1995). It was of course, a no contest and quite perceivably, the two isn’t really obsessed with one another. Again, as I would expect that such thing would happen similar to Al Pacino’s obsession on Robert De Niro and vice versa in Heat.
All in all, the issues I had with this film are mostly technical. It was a long, brooding and a dramatic tale that demythologized a known legend. If one complains about how the film ended itself with an agreeably low-key scene, then it is certain that (s)he knows nothing about Michael Mann because really, it is not the first time he employs such low-key scene to end his films.
My rating: *** / **** Although underwhelmed, it should be noted that my expectation that this film would at least rivaled Mann’s Heat. There’s no shame in not living up to that expectation.