Walking out of a Michael Mann film, you’re likely to feel many things.
Entertained may be one of them, but certainly very dizzy and a bit confused should be high on that list. Mann’s kinetic visuals and “Blair Witch” style camera movements are sure to leave even the most seaworthy moviegoer a little sick.
Unfortunately this is true of his latest effort, “Public Enemies,” which stars Johnny Depp as the Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger.
The film follows Dillinger as he attempts to elude capture by both local police and J. Edgar Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) upstart Bureau of Investigation, which has labeled him as the first ever “Public Enemy #1.”
Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is the man charged with heading the task force to catch Dillinger and bring him to justice.
The problem for Purvis is that Dillinger has become a folk hero, a sort of modern day Robin Hood figure, to those whom the Depression has hit the hardest. His “take from the rich attitude” and daring robberies captured the imaginations of those who have lost everything.
With the public in his favor, Dillinger can walk the streets and enjoy the spoils of his robberies without fear of being turned in by some law-abiding citizen looking to do the right thing.
The film’s plot is driven by the cat and mouse relationship between Dillinger and Purvis, as Dillinger flaunts authority at every turn, taking every chance to make those pursuing him look silly.
Also, Dillinger takes an occasional break from his criminal activities to court Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat check girl he meets at a party.
Outside of that, not too much happens, which is a problem for the 140 minute movie. The plot goes from robbery to robbery to occasional car chase without taking too much time for character development.
This isn’t a concern for Depp, Bale or Cotillard, who all receive ample screen time, but the film’s supporting players all get lost in a sea of fedoras and old timey accents.
After a while, unless you’re familiar with the actor, it’s easy to lose track of just who is who.
Of course, Depp is fantastic as Dillinger. The man was born to play the outlaw, a role that he cast himself in for a number of years in his personal life. Depp connects with Dillinger’s outsider mentality and plays the character with a cocky yet likable swagger that few other actors could manage.
Bale’s Purvis isn’t quite as memorable. In fact, Bale’s southern accent sounds so much like Martin Sheen’s turn as Robert E. Lee in “Gettysburg,” that it’s hard not to expect him to order an ill-advised charge at some point.
In recent years, Bale has become the go-to-guy to play the hero, even though everyone knows playing the villain is much more fun.
Take “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Dark Knight” and now this for example. In each film he was asked to play the straight guy, while another actor gets to have all the diabolical fun.
The thing is, is that Bale is really good at it and— despite the accent problems— he proves it again in “Public Enemies.” He holds his own against Depp, which is no small feat to say the least.
However, it would be nice to get to see him go back to his dastardly “American Psycho” roots every once in a while.
Cotillard is fine as Dillinger’s love interest, but her character gets shortchanged a bit in terms of the story. Also, her French accent seems poised to slip out at any moment.
Outside of the occasionally meandering and listless plot, the biggest problem with the film is Mann’s directing.
As mentioned earlier, Mann’s camera work is all over the place. Scenes where people are just sitting and talking are shot with an overly dramatic handheld camera that swoops in and out at will. By the end of the film, the camera seems to have become an annoying fourth lead character, and may actually get more attention then Cotillard.
That being said, there are few directors who can shoot an action scene as well as Mann. He has a knack for them that is almost unparalleled and he proves it time and again with Dillinger’s exploits.
Chase scenes through the woods at night, car crashes and, of course, bank robberies have rarely looked so good. His visuals are able to perfectly convey the natural energy contained in these action set pieces.
The problem arises when Mann tries to add some of this energy to scenes when that task should be left for the actors to handle.
“Public Enemies” is not a bad movie, it’s an uneven one with a hyper active director and an at times thin story line. The good news is that Depp is at home playing Dillinger and as he has done time and again, he saves the movie. He has the uncanny ability to elevate a film from so-so to fantastic with a well-timed grin or a tip of the cap.
Without Depp, “Public Enemies,” wouldn’t have worked, but with him it manages to survive its shortcomings and then some.
In “Public Enemies,” Depp proves once again exactly why he is in a class all of his own.