For a second time I sat through the two and a half hours of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.” And twice I’ve been disappointed. At a preview attended last December, the underwhelming biopic starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger was an unenergetic, sullen, and tepid effort. But I thought it unfair to critique the film when this summer release could have been transformed, yet the intervening seven months have brought no discernible changes or judicious edits. It’s surprising to see, once again, a movie from a director whose films are charred with atmospheric resonance, as stolid and uninspiring as “Public Enemies.” With pretensions to tell the epic tale of the FBI’s pursuit of an infamous Great Depression bank robber, this flat feature instead is an exercise in aloof filmmaking.
Strangely for a Mann production, the film, shot in high definition, has an unvarnished, scruffy appearance. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti – who so evocatively photographed the hardboiled 1950s crime milieu of “LA Confidential” — cannot capture the 1930s vibe with as much artistry because the movie suffers from a dim, muted visual style and the haphazard framing so common to the new technology. But the look of the film was apparently a conscious decision by Mann, who decided to forego 35mm film for the HD format and explained his reasoning as an attempt to accentuate intimacy.
“I shot in HD for a reason. My objective wasn’t to have people look at a period film. I wanted the audience to be involved in the film. I wanted it to feel like it had all the complexity of what it was like in that period of time.
“I didn’t want people to watch it from a distance. I wanted them to have an intimate connection to those times and for those times to have an impact on people.”
Even if the images created the connection that Mann sought – and they don’t; there’s a difference between close-up and intimate – the pictures couldn’t override a detached, thin story. And as besets an undeveloped biopic, the characters are examined peripherally. (The “warts and all” is predominantly physical, captured in high def.) Depp – an actor who seems to cast himself exclusively as unattached misfits and loners — plays Dillinger with variable consistency. He undoubtedly exudes charisma in the scenes where the shackled fugitive jokes with reporters in jail cells and on airport tarmacs but he lacks palpable presence when he is surrounded by his band of thieves or as he woos his paramour. It’s a stiff portrayal which doesn’t linger like the glistening magnesium flash-lamps of the hordes of photographers huddled on the courthouse steps. (Conversely John Ortiz provides memorable moments in the all-too-brief role of Phil D’Andrea, a well-connected Chicago hood who warns Dillinger that his front-page escapades could damage the burgeoning, behind-closed-doors gambling syndicates. In comparison, Dillinger is petty, overt and unsophisticated. It’s an intriguing subplot of two distinct approaches to crime but nothing more than a tangent. A film following the exploits of D’Andrea sounds quite appealing.)
The script by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman is too frequently padded with platitudes, especially in the exchanges between Dillinger and his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, played by the gamine (and game) Marion Cotillard. “Where are you going?” Billie asks. “Anywhere I want,” John replies. Later, during another tiff, John warns Billie, “Don’t kid a kidder.” She responds, “Don’t play me for a fool.”
Unassisted by trite dialogue, Depp is merely inconsistent and Cotillard underutilized, while Christian Bale as the phlegmatic Melvin Purvis, the bureau’s special agent overseeing the operation to capture Dillinger, is wooden. He doesn’t speak; he drones. If Bale was a no-name actor you’d think of this performance as inconsequential, at best. As special agent Charles Winstead, a subordinate of Purvis, Stephen Lang hands Bale a woodshed lesson in how to communicate, and thereby reveal character traits, with a clenched jaw. For a film with very few engaging characters, it receives some badly needed pep with the appearance of character actor Peter Gerety (a Ned Beatty clone in appearance and panache) as Dillinger’s theatrical lawyer, Louis Piquett.
When “Public Enemies” stages the final stakeout of Dillinger, G-Men lay in wait outside the Biograph Theater as he watches the screen flicker with images from 1934’s gangster flick, “Manhattan Melodrama”: Clark Gable is a tenacious presence spitting out gallows humor; a resolute William Powell is fraught with defiance; and the luminous, commanding Myrna Loy is shot beautifully by cinematographer James Wong Howe. Juxtaposed to the unremarkable “Public Enemies,” just those few brief glimpses from the W.S. Van Dyke directed classic show us what we’ve been missing.