Review of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies

I am completely gay for both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale and I’m a sucker for any film set in the 1930s, so Michael Mann’s Public Enemies would seem to hit all the right buttons, telling the story of FBI agent Melvin Purvis’ attempts to capture celebrity bank robber John Dillinger. Unfortunately some technical flaws and lackluster characterisation left me feeling a bit cold toward the whole affair.

I like a bit of decent film photography as much as the next man but the cinematography here distracted me. Shot in HD video throughout, it looks cheap and harsh, a high-budget production shot on home video cameras. Everything ends up looking like it was shot in a studio, over-lit with cameras drawn in tight. It left me feeling like I was watching a History Channel dramatisation, and every time a scene ended I expected a narrator — one of the lesser Baldwins perhaps — to start talking over some archive footage.

Sound-wise, I had similar issues. I don’t know whether it was just my cinema having problems but the audio struck me as being severely unbalanced, with headache-inducing gunfire at one end of the scale and inaudible dialogue at the other. Depp mumbles his way through the role of Dillinger, and I’m sure there were some very pithy witticisms that I never picked up on. At least the soundtrack worked: tracks by Otis Taylor, Billie Holiday and The Bruce Fowler Big Band are all excellent, and gave the bank hold-up scenes in particular an extra level of giddiness.

Once I’d willed myself to move past the distracting video and sound I found myself watching a pretty solid gangster film, albeit not a great one. Though Depp’s performance could have used a tad more charm, Billy Crudup was excellent as a young J. Edgar Hoover struggling to give credence to the notion of a Federal Bureau of Investigations, Christian Bale as Purvis was fine and a welcome respite from the gravel-voiced roles Bale has been playing recently, and Marion Cotillard is always watchable.

They’re supported by a cast of strong character actors that I would have liked to have seen more of: Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Rory Cochrane, Giovanni Ribisi, Peter Gerety, and if they ever make a companion film about the life of Baby-Face Nelson, English actor Stephen Graham shows here that he’d be perfect for the role. Unfortunately, Mann doesn’t seem inclined to give too much attention to the roles these men take on, so it’s tricky at times to know who’s who, particularly given the similarities between Dorff and Graham.

Public Enemies lags a little at times, particularly when the too-tactiturn Dillinger is wooing Cotillard’s Frechette, but as is typical for a Michael Mann film, the action sequences are explosive and excellent, so if you like your Tommy Gun shoot-outs you’ll be well-served here. If that doesn’t move you, it may still be worth seeing the film, but probably not worth going out of your way for. As Mann seemed to want this to look like a made-for-TV movie, perhaps that’s where it will really shine.