I am not a Michael Mann fan. There, I said it. I liked ‘Collateral’ largely because of Tom Cruise’s towering performance, and the same exception is true here – ‘Public Enemies’ is almost only watchable because of Johnny Depp’s mesmerising performance as John Dillinger. It’s a film which, as ‘Collateral’, depends on an adrenaline burst to get you through the show. Oh sure you’re supposed to believe in the epic treatment, you’re supposed to get drawn in by the cat & mouse double act (a la DeNiro/Pacino & Cruise/Foxx) between Depp and Christian Bale, but those are the dullest aspects of this overblown piece. Mann’s stylistic flair edges out both character development and plot. If the relationship between Dillinger and girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is supposed to be believable is simply isn’t. The dialogue between them, particularly at the onset of their relationship is so unbelievable (despite Dillinger’s cult of personality), that much of what follows falls flat. Dillinger’s loyalty was one thing, but his amorality was another, and Mann’s attention never stays with any of his cast too long, so eager is he to get to his next set piece. Don’t get me wrong his action sequences are knockouts, but Bale of all people should now know action sequences do not amount to a good film on their own. But Bale himself yet again displays very little range and zero charisma as real life FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and as with Terminator Salvation the film suffers for it. He’s supposed to have an emotional investment in capturing or killing Dillinger? How’s about some evidence of that?
There’s a brave subplot featuring J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) about the birth of the FBI, and how Dillinger was instrumental in it, but this is inexplicably downplayed in favour of what Mann clearly believes are his strengths; he’s wrong. His cinematography is brilliant (and on ultra-high resolution digital video it has some knockout moments), and his eye for historical detail does draw you into this world, but it becomes an addiction more than an interest. He races you around Dillinger’s manic, live-for-the-moment existence so quickly you never get the chance to invest in any character (even Dillinger), and it isn’t helped by shoddy sound work. I thought it was just the screening I attended, but other reviews have noticed the frequently murky sound quality. Fly-on-the-wall is one thing, clarity is another, and it annoyed me from the start. Ultimately though it’s a film which doesn’t know if it’s a gangster flick or a historical epic. The overly-long ‘Heat’ was a boring mess for the same reasons the overly-long ‘Public Enemies’ misfires – the director’s ego gets in the way of good storytelling. There is probably an interesting story to tell about John Dillinger (in a lot shorter time too), but this wasn’t it. 6/10