Well, a new blog for a new film. For once, I am reviewing something before everyone on my friends list has seen it, so hopefully this will affect your decision on whether or not you intend to see it.
Public Enemies, was a film that for me, confused me as to my opinion of it. I walked out thinking one thing, drove home thinking another, went to bed thinking another, woke up thinking another and so on. So bits of this may seem a tad confused. We'll see I suppose.
So, the plot, for those who don't know, revolves around the infamous bank robber John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) and the attempts at arresting him led by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Along with this we have a romantic sub plot between Depp and Marion Cotillard (which I apologise for the ever changing spelling of in this review) who plays Billie Frechette.
I guess it has been a pretty tough decade for Michael Mann. Since he left the 20th century on such a high (see The Insider if you haven't already) he has pretty much failed in every aspect. Ali wasn't nearly as impressive as it intended to be, Collateral was ultimately unfufilling, and finally Mann sank into a Mojito ridden pit of desperation with Miami Vice ("I know a great place for Mojitos... Mexico"). Public Enemies is certainly an attempt for a return to form by Mann, who almost certainly recognised his past mistakes. An attempt to retain past glories of The Insider, Heat and Manhunter.
So first thing is first. The narrative of the film is the most important aspect. Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't bother making changes to the (already pretty famous) story. He doesn't event attempt to show Dillinger in a particularly new light. The main reason I can see for this, is because Dillinger's tale is already a ripping yarn. The story is spectacular in itself, and in order to be entertaining it doesn't need much switching around.
The screenplay is not without its problems though. While I felt Dillinger and Purvis were both fully fleshed out characters, the film lacked almost any interaction between the two respective "gangs". For example, there was little focus on Dillinger's gang as a close knit unit, however it was implied they were, at the same time it was hard to feel much sympathy for the members of Dillinger's gang simply because they are not fleshed out... at all... the same goes for Purvis' team. That was certainly my main gripe with the screenplay.
On the upside, the screenplay, in terms of both dialogue, story telling and, to a certain degree, visual $tyle emulates the Gangster pictures of the era the film is set. This is a very nice touch on behalf of Mann. As is displayed as subtly as a brick, so that the summer audiences can get the references, Dillinger loved to watch films that portrayed escapades partially based on his crimes, and in the same way the film emulates those films. So in a sense, the Dillinger in Public Enemies is the product of the cinema of the era. That glamorised criminal life$tyle of 1930s Hollywood. And so much of the film rests on this idea. It is a homage to so many of those films, although mixed with the modern day muddy waters of morality (see : are the cops as bad as the robbers cliche) which all works very nicely. So I commend Mann in that way.
The acting is more of a mixed bag. Depp's performance is the one I can't quite put my finger on. At first I just thought, yeah whatever, Johnny Depp is Johnny Depp, he is just doing what he does. But I then considered it, and thought maybe there was a little more he was giving to the Dillinger character than I first perceived. On the outside he is the c1assic affluent, confident, suave Dillinger, and that is all good and well, but at the same time, he gave brief flashes of vulnerability, and fear. The good example of this comes when it is made clear that Dillinger is only thinking for the day he lives in. Of course he is, because perhaps he fears the consequences of his actions, he believes he is smarter than the police, but he knows he isn't. This is where I started to think that maybe Depp's portrayal was infact very good. Maybe not Oscar worthy (although you never know what the year will hold), but with enough layers to be memorable. Bale was good as Purvis, although the character was more two dimensional than Dillinger. But at least this was his first performance in a while where I wasn't just thinking of Patrick Bateman. Marion Cotillard was excellent as Depp's love interest. The final scene is, I think, a real reflection of her character, but I don't want to spoil the film, so you'll understand if you see it. Although her character has little screentime, when she is on screen is basically steals the show, and even if her accent waivers once or twice during the running time, it is okay, because her character is part French. It almost seems as though it was intentional... in fact thinking about it, it probably was.
The supporting cast is very important, and while some of the characters are not nearly fleshed out enough to be worth it, the performance of Brit Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson is excellent as a James Cagney possessed by Satan type. Again, another character clearly attempting to emulate the film of the era, hence you could argue his character is too over the top, but I see it as an emulation, and so it is perfect in that respect. Even with his quite frankly rubbish Italian American accent, he steals the scenes he is in. Billy Crudup, is also excellent as always as J.Edgar Hoover.
The film has had some visual criticism, which I in part do and don't agree with. While Mann's love of Digital HD cameras is evident, and has been since Collateral, and even though he never has used them quite as well as David Lynch in Inland Empire, and most likely never will use then as well as David Lynch, he does a good job with them in Public Enemies. Yes, the film often looks a tad grainy, and the quality isn't as good as it should be given the equipment they are using, but I felt the grainy look, and the poor quality of picture again echoed the films of the 1930s, or at least was an attempt of doing so (that maybe didn't work as well as intended). The overall atmosphere of the film, for the most part was improved by this. For example a degree of confusion was given to the gun fights, particularly an excellent sequence at a log cabin, in which it is difficult to tell who is who, giving a sense of urgency to everything and also putting the viewer in the place of Purvis, who was having extreme difficulty deciding who was Dillinger and who wasn't. In this respect it is used very well. In other respects, this technique is used at the wrong time. There are moments when really, regular film would have done the job better. A mixture between the two would almost certainly have benefited the film.
Visually again, the film can't help but have comparisons drawn with Heat. The first 30 minutes or so basically are Heat in 1933, which I suppose is an attempt to get summer audiences into the film. While it is fine, I found these opening sequences ultimately dull. The opening prison breakout was such a bog standard fair I had hope for the film dashed, and perhaps this was why my inital decision of the films quality was lower than how I feel about it now. Mann was clearly using Heat as a template for the early scenes, and some a bit later on, and I felt a tad ripped off by this, paying to see a film I saw 14 years ago with different costumes. But the film gets over this hump. Sure it is never as good as Heat, but it at least finds its own visual home later on, which is this confusion laden digital $tyle
Overall, the film left me in confusion as to whether or not I liked it. While I was left bombarded with these clever little references, good acting, and a fairly exciting story (although most already know how it ends, bits of it still had me on the edge of my seat) the film is let down in some places by some less good acting, poor characterisation and maybe Mann trying a little hard to show us how much he knows about cinema.
Of course, what we are left with is a summer film. And it is one of the best for a while. So regularly summer is the time for sequels and remakes, and at least we are getting something with a little more thought behind it than that, and I commend that. I can over look the problems with it, because it is just that, a ripping yarn. It isn't art cinema, it perhaps isn;t the epic it is trying to be. But it works, technically, in terms of acting and appearance it is very self assured. It oozes with homage, but isn't quite as tacky and in your face (and plagiarised) as a film by QT.
No, it isn't Manhunter. No, it isn't Heat. No, it isn't The Insider. But why should we expect it to be these things. Public Enemies is its own film. It can stand up on its own. While none of the performances are career defining, and the film isn't career defining for Mann, and I highly doubt it has a chance at the Oscars. It is still a good film, and if you go and see one film of this type over summer, make sure you spend your money on this one. Because while it may not be the super intelligent epic it could have been, it is firstly entertaining, secondly interesting and thirdly, has a little more to it than your standard summer blockbuster.