Handsome Depp Gangster Flick Lacks Depth
2 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Johnny Depp (in a subdued cool swagger) is Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, in director Michael Mann's handsomely mounted but curiously distant riff on Depression Era Gangster Shenanigans. Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the G-man hunting down Dillinger's gang, but the cat-and-mouse game never reaches the boiling point some viewers will desire, resulting in a tepid film designed to make you think you have to admire it.

Lifting material from the true crime book by Bryan Burrough, the workmen-like script from Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman tries clumsily to weave in too many secondary characters while staying on point with the historical events. There are some decent attempts to anchor the film with a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, who is wisely striking while the iron is hot in her first stateside role since her Oscar win), but there's not much else in the realm of character development, and no one is given any backstory. The writers start "in media res" to give it that classical epic structure, but it doesn't work when you can't even identify the peripheral characters from each other. What results is a cavalcade of apparently great supporting turns from a large professional cast, everyone spot on with their period cadence and mannerisms but no one leaving any kind of lasting impression in the wake of the great turns from Depp and Cotillard, the only two in the cast given anything to work with. There are also some missed opportunities to explore Dillinger's Robin Hood mentality and the public infatuation with his "celebrity" -- just two of the potentially great subtexts that are only given brief surface level treatments by the screenplay.

From a technical standpoint, there's plenty to chew on here for thoughtful audiences. Mann's use of HD video to shoot the film gives the period-piece gangster film an interesting texture. I found it refreshing to watch a Depression Era film not washed out in sepia tones and instead look crisp and fresh, with the nighttime shots especially compelling from a composition standpoint. However, there are times when in tight quarters that the digital camera-work gives the film a "home movie" aesthetic, and whether shooting on film or in digital, the shaky hand-held work during action scenes is always a mistake in my book. Mann also attempts to do some throwback Fritz Lang "M"-style work on the sound design, which works well in some of the "silent" scenes but often results in dialogue that is hard to hear and gunshots that are clamoring. These artistic choices are highly debatable, but I admire Mann's vision to do something different with a generic story. Whether you think Mann's manipulations work or not will be left to a matter of personal taste.

"Public Enemies" is a film composed of many handsome elements from the costuming to the finely detailed set designs to the soundtrack, which most notably creates a recurring theme with "Bye, Bye, Blackbird." There are also some good standalone scenes including a well shot rain-soaked police escorted airplane landing in Indiana, some charming movie theater moments, a thrilling nighttime shootout in the woods, and a killer Cotillard-focused coda that would've packed more of a wallop had the rest of the film added up to the sum of its parts. While it's easy to admire the work of Depp and Cotillard, Bale is off key in his attempt to add subtlety and nuance to his hollowly scripted character. Sadly, Mann's film is a good-looking but shallow exercise in self-seriousness largely due to a faulty script that never successfully identifies the heart of the story. Watching that tear run down Cotillard's cheek before the credits roll, though, you might swear you had just watched something better.
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