tongue-tied lightning

Public Enemies (Mann, 2009)
July 9, 2009, 1:24 AM
Filed under: film


Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a confounding picture.  I’m still not entirely sure what I think about it.  Based on Bryan Burrough’s book of the same title covering the crime wave of the 1930’s, Mann’s film isolates the story of John Dillinger and his pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover’s top agent Melvin Purvis.  Bits and pieces of other plot strands come through, from the formation of the FBI to the exploits of Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, giving the movie a rough and unfinished feel.

In addition to many of the background characters seeming to blend together, the characterization all-around feels very weak.  This hasn’t been a problem for Mann in the past, primarily in Heat but even in Collateral he displayed a very strong sense of character.  Johnny Depp and Christian Bale both give reserved performances that keep you at  a distance.  Marion Cotillard’s performance bothered me and her relationship with Depp felt half-baked.  At the end of the day I didn’t feel I knew any of the characters, not even Dillinger.

The film does have it’s high points.  Mann continues to prove he’s among the best at staging action setpieces.  There may not be anything as awe-inspiring as the robbery in Heat but the bank robberies, prison break and stake-outs are all expertly filmed.  This is Mann’s third film shot in digital and unlike David Fincher who strives to make his movies resemble film as much as possible, Mann embraces the quirks of DV.  This approach has it’s plusses and minuses.  Digital has a sense of immediacy that brings to mind home video and television broadcasts.  During the shootout at Dillinger’s Wisconsin hideout it lent the film an eerie feeling, almost as if it was taking place as you were watching it.  Though there were certainly times throughout the film I felt it looked ugly.

I did enjoy the film, probably alot more than it sounds like, but it certainly has its weaknesses.  Particularly in the areas of plotting and characterization.  There is so much material here I think it may have benefitted from a miniseries approach as Burrough initially intended.  Or, if Mann wanted to home in on the story of Dillinger during those 13 months perhaps the screenplay could’ve used a little more paring down.  It feels a bit empty, some key ingredient is missing. Maybe it’s that the film tells us what happened, but very rarely takes the time to tell us how or why.


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