The narrative detachment of director Michael Mann's clinical approach is an impediment to any viewer's complete enjoyment of Public Enemies. The film is set in the 30's but all the blues music in its soundtrack can't prevent it from looking strangely contemporary. Perhaps it's the choice of digital filmmaking, championed by Mann for years now, which makes it look like a hybrid of reality television and Cinema V้rit้, not the crime caper that audiences expect. Yet, overlooking this technical aspect, Enemies is a minor return to form for Mann after the misfire that was Miami Vice, who engages us with a familiar cat and mouse game, packed with an enormous amount of gunplay.
The plot, set in the early 30's, during America's depression era, tells us nothing about famed criminal and bank robber John Dilinger (Johnny Depp, playing it cool as always). His past is kept to a single line about his childhood. The film is all about his exploits ranging from multiple bank robberies in Chicago to prison getaways (twice). As the FBI's most wanted man, he is feverishly pursued by Christian Bale's Agent Melvin Purvis, but remains elusive thanks to his quick thinking and dexterity, despite the use of then modern technology to catch him. Over the course of its overlong running time, a large number of characters are introduced; names and faces frustratingly appear and disappear with little background. This is an oft repeated Mann technique, no doubt to instill depth of research in the picture that repeatedly fails the director (as it did in his only real biopic Ali).
Grainy, stodgy and distracting, Michael Mann's films seem to be getting more and more realistic looking, but that isn't a compliment for Public Enemies. Films are adept at capturing a time and a place, not the reality of it (that is better served through documentaries) and despite Dante Spinotti's fascinating cinematography (the cloudy sky in the opening scene is elegant and majestic), no one will be fooled into believing this is the past. Mann it seems has also not improved in the drama department the courtship of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) by Dilinger has little life and is at times, wooden. The familiar Mann themes are all here though the dichotomy of criminals and their perpetrators, the recklessness of ambition, just set in a different era. The one area where Mann continues to show impressive craftsmanship is in making his film highly cinematic.
The firepower and raw intensity of scene after scene after scene of robberies and skirmishes with the law have an impressive potency that is by now universally accepted as the director's forte. Despite the sheer number of shootouts, including a very impressive nighttime gunfight at a lodge in the woods, the film does little to explore the legend of Dilinger. Taking its cue no doubt from Terrence Malick's Badlands in its portrayal of criminals who achieve celebrity status (a key scene where Dilinger poses for questions and photographs with police is nearly identical to a similar scene with Martin Sheen's Kit from Badland's), the script never exposes the reasons for this mass fascination and therefore falls short of the achievement of the highly celebrated and effective Assassination of Jesse James from a few years ago. Nonetheless, despite this reviews focus on all these limitations, Public Enemies remains a quintessential Mann product and very watchable as a result. Though ultra serious and formalist, the film has a handful of scenes of great potency, including a witty segment in a cinema where the Dilinger gang see 'Wanted' pictures of themselves with a packed audience, and the fierce, brutal Bureau interrogation of Billie, a character that Cotillard gives both breath and life to the very lest scene is poignant and potent, with the camera focusing on her face, as she internalizes her grief, before the credits roll. It's just a pity that the film can't quite give the same humanity to all its subjects. - Faizan Rashid