Much like Ridley Scott or David Fincher, director Michael Mann is a visual stylist of the highest order. His compositions are flawless and his sense of design impeccable. Watching his 1995 film Heat again, you can't help but marvel at his horizontal, wide-shot approach to Los Angeles' topography, capturing its urban landscape in a way that few filmmakers have ever been able to. Mann's structural and psychological fetishes permeate nearly every movie he makes, focusing on the sensual machismo of men who trade in brooding perfectionism and the implied sexual tension between men who hunt other men.
Unfortunately, also like Scott and Fincher, Mann can fall victim to style over substance, delivering hollow dramas that leave their most interesting thematic threads dangling in the wind. Public Enemies, for all its gorgeous imagery, disappoints for this very reason.
Mann and his co-writers (working from a book by Bryan Burrough) deserve props for avoiding the expected "rise and fall" formula of most American gangster films — Public Enemies covers only the last 14 months of the cat-and-mouse showdown between John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). But what promises to be a meaty exploration of the myth and manipulation of celebrity set against a backdrop of socioeconomic upheaval becomes a jumbled mix of well-crafted docudrama, sketchy social history and clichéd Hollywood-style romance.
Unlike Arthur Penn's brilliant Bonnie and Clyde, Mann's treatment of his Depression-era setting is disappointingly cursory. There are intimations of Dillinger being a sociopathic product of his times and confusing his criminal identity with that of movie gangsters — beyond that, the character remains a dramatic cipher. Mann is too in love with the textures and aesthetics of the time period, presenting a visual grandeur that undermines an attempt to depict a society desperate for an anti-hero to strike back at the banking system that so callously failed them. Given the current state of the nation, to say that this is a missed opportunity for cultural relevance is an understatement.
Similarly, his characters and their alliances seemed more informed by previous Hollywood films than the rich deconstruction Burrough is reported to have brought to the genre, revealing the marquee criminals as nihilistic thugs.
Where Mann brings his A-game, predictably, is to Dillinger's legendary heists and escapes. The movie opens with an amazing jailbreak and offers as its action centerpiece an astonishing nighttime raid on Dillinger and his cohorts by the FBI. Shot in high-definition video, the lustrous blacker-than-black cinematography is punctuated by incredible blazes of gunfire white and a symphony of deadly bullet cracks.
Try as he may to keep his performance grounded in understated reality, Depp's charisma is so ridiculously off the charts that he blasts Bale's stoic and soulful facade off the screen. This is made painfully clear when the two adversaries meet face-to-face for the first time. Modeled after a similar scene in Heat (and thematically identical), Depp lays down a gauntlet Bale seems unprepared to pick up. Contrast this with De Niro and Pacino's alpha male tête-à-tête and it's obvious that this is hardly a battle of equals.
The rest of the cast is solid; Billy Crudup gives creepy psychosexual overtones to his J. Edgar Hoover, and Marion Cotillard's French accent threatens to burst free of her practiced English.
When considering the illustrious history of crime cinema, Public Enemies probably comes closest to emulating Terrence Malick's Badlands. Though less epic in scope and far more poetic, Malick also favored visual iconography over dramatic context. The difference with Mann's approach, however, is that his icy detachment further distances us from a character we're already barely permitted to know. When you look back at the confused and desperate 1930s, where machine gun-toting psychopaths captured the movie-made imaginations of demoralized Americans, you can't help but wonder what kind of ruthless anti-hero today's public will misguidedly look to for inspiration. Unfortunately, Mann's lush but limited film gives us no hints.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.