Michael Mann has a gift for the lengthy crime epic. The fun of watching Mann when he spreads out nearly three hours of action is how graceful it all is at times. With his latest, Public Enemies, he undercuts this beauty somewhat with the use of hi definition digital video. The form, in this case, obscures the message, and it obscures the art. It is interesting but, in the end, it has a feel of a really well done (REALLY well done) YouTube video. Have you ever seen the clips and shorts some filmmakers put on YouTube?
To this end, Public Enemies is great and greatly flawed. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen but it does mean that digital video still hasn’t quite replaced, nor should it replace, 35mm film. There is another significant problem with the film and that is that, beyond the desire to explore gangster John Dillinger’s life, and death, what is the point of this very long (REALLY well done) film?
Johnny Depp plays Dillinger and captures that look we’ve all seen on old crime photos. It’s that pencil-moustached half sneer, a requisite for all 1930’s Depression-area gangsters. Depp nails the sneer – as to the rest of his portrayal of Dillinger, it breaks new ground for Depp as an actor in that he isn’t playing so much of a cartoon, nor a sad sack. He is a formidable badass, comfortable with his Alpha Male status and seems to finally own his manhood.
In the film, Dillinger and his gang escape from prison, rob banks and all the while Dillinger is looking for love. He finds it in Billie (Marion Cotillard), a “dark beauty” who needs someone like Dillinger to come along and rescue her from her pointless life. Like every great moll, Billie wears a $3 dress and works odd jobs until she meets up with a gun-carrying outlaw who automatically gives her life purpose. With that comes excitement, money, and inevitably, death and prison. Perhaps infamy?
Cotillard is like a butterfly trapped in a jar. She flutters and looks like she could escape at any moment if given the chance. But she is also so delicate, just touching her could dissolve her wings and render her unable to take flight. Her English has gotten better since she won her Oscar but she’s not meant to play supporting characters; she needs to be a burning bush in the center of the film, a la Edith Piaf.
The art direction and costumes are solid, though none of it feels authentic when the digital video becomes obvious, as it does in a few moments throughout the film. It is distracting and ultimately distancing. You’re wondering why in the world what you’re watching looks so weird.
The reason to see the film is Mann’s camera’s eye. He choreographs his action sequences like an intricate ballet. His close-ups are great, particularly on Christian Bale who once again turns in a brilliant performance. It’s a long sit, however, so don’t be in a rush getting anywhere if you decide to take the plunge.