The story of John Dillinger and his escape at Little Bohemia was so dramatic and exciting as written on the pages of Vanity Fair that I assumed the film that followed would be equally mesmerizing. I'd be wrong. Michael Mann's Public Enemies is mediocre filmmaking at best, and at worst it is an insult to anyone who really loves the art and craft of good filmmaking.
I have to ask: Why do directors like Michael Mann and Michael Bay have careers?? They lack style and substance and their films always disappoint me. They edit in a frenetic matter (shots literally seem slapped together), shoot mostly in close-ups for no apparent reason (so that we can't see any action), and lack storytelling skills on many levels. I should have listened to my gut about Michael Mann, but Johnny Depp lured me into seeing Public Enemies against my better judgment, Besides, I figured even a hack couldn't ruin this one.
I was wrong. This film is flawed in so many ways, that even my 12-year-old daughter, who accompanied me to the film, was able to practically write a thesis on why this film fails. That's right, my 8th grader is a more sophisticated storyteller than Mr. Mann (a Hollywood veteran SOMEHOW with a slew of directing credits). I can only imagine that poor Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard (radiant actors who struggle to bring depth to their characters) were mightily disappointed when they saw the director's cut and realized that Michael Mann has no freaking idea how to set up a shot or capture the essence of a scene. He seems to cut away all the style and substance at every editing point. And at the same time he destroys the acting and story.
This film has no protagonist and no antagonist. Not that I can tell. Because nobody seems to have any motivation driving them or any life outside of what they're doing on screen at any given moment. The cops and robbers are all cardboard cutouts, lacking depth. The camera never lingers on any of the dozens of cops and robbers (besides the inordinate amount of closeups on Depp and Cotillard) long enough for us to figure out who the freak they are. So bodies start piling up and we're expected to give a damn but we don't -- because we never were allowed to get to know any of the characters or care about them.
Billy Crudup (as J. Edgar Hoover) and Christian Bale (as G-Man Melvin Purvis) are all about the slicked back hair. There's not much else to their portrayals. I'm still not sure if Bale is supposed to be the protagonist or antagonist. Either way, his character bored the hell out of me. Bale is very good at playing cool characters who wear masks to hide what's underneath, displaying little emotion. However, I'm starting to think Bale isn't acting. I'm starting to think he is incapable of playing characters who are multi-dimensional or actually have a pulse. He never lets the audience get close enough to care about his character one way or the other. Purvis never seems like a living, breathing human being worthy of our interest. We don't know why he is so driven to pursue Dillinger. We don't know what this man does when he isn't pursuing the FBI's most-wanted. The man has only one-dimension to him, and it's boring.
The love story between Dillinger (Depp) and Billie Frechette (Cotillard) is dreadfully chaste and um, unromantic for an R-rated film. Here I was sitting with my 12-year-old hoping the love scenes wouldn't be too steamy, only to realize that we see more steam on an episode of Greys Anatomy. Wow, what a waste of chemistry. I guess we would care a lot more about these lovers being kept apart if we ever really felt they were soul mates, or at least were able to feel just a smidgen of their passion. Unfortunately, Mr. Mann chooses to cut any sort of emotion out of the film completely. Cotillard's tears at the end of the film almost provoked emotion in me, but they weren't enough, and they came too late. I should have felt what she was feeling, but didn't because she had been kept at an arm's length the entire film.
The same goes for the violence. I can't believe I'm saying this -- but this film is hardly violent enough. Sure there's an almost constant spray of machine gun fire, but we never feel impacted by the bullets, as if any of it means anything. Once again, I have no idea why Mann chooses to film so many of the action sequences in inappropriate close-ups, robbing the audience from getting the full impact of any of these scenes. It just seems like scene after scene, Mann makes the wrong shot choice -- choices that even a first time filmmaker could see are flawed, inappropriate, and lacking in any finesse or meaning.
Look, Michael Mann started in TV and maybe he should have stayed there. It's most likely where he honed his mediocre craft of shooting everyone in close-ups as TV (with its limited budgets and distracted audiences) loves talking heads. Mann also directs an R-rated film as if he's shooting a 1970s TV movie-of-the-week. Every time things get steamy or too violent or too gritty he cuts away-- robbing his audience from experiencing anything remotely real or edgy. Every scene loses it's impact, because for some reason the director won't commit to it and let it play out the way it needs to in order to have emotional resonance.
My advice to you all is skip Public Enemies and rent The Untouchables. That's what I plan on doing to show my daughter how a film can actually be crafted well and leave you with indelible images and characters that stay with you way long after you finish viewing the film.