In my introduction I professed my complicated feelings for Michael Mann’s 2006 dud Miami Vice. It’s my misunderstood baby, to be endlessly defended against the world. There are few other critics who grant it affection while audiences yawned or failed to notice. Which is understandable. It doesn’t have a normal story structure, it doesn’t waste time with exposition or setting up characters’ origins or whatever. It plops you right in the middle of an undercover drama full of confusion, heartbreak and some of the biggest beards you’ll see outside of Spanish cinema. It’s not the big-budget action extravaganza it was marketed as, but a love story wrapped around guns, style and mood. It’s the movie I point at and say “That’s everything Michael Mann is known for.” People often refer to Heat, the decadent crime opera that influenced everything from Grand Theft Auto to The Dark Knight, as Mann’s masterpiece. Those people haven’t seen Miami Vice. If they have they probably hated it despite everything those two movies have in common – which is everything. You know how auteurs seem to do the same thing over and over in different ways?
Public Enemies shares everything with Heat and Miami Vice. It sports the similar romance – replace Colin Farrell’s troubled gaze with Johnny Depp’s troubled gaze, and Gong Li’s accented English with Marion Cotillard’s. Mann loves tragic love stories, misbegotten affairs amidst the bullets and brawn. It’s his tried-and-true formula and he paints this one with a different set of colors and circumstances. Yet Depp’s John Dillinger and Cotillard’s Billie Flechette never seem like a couple, even when they’re together. They know their relationship is doomed, fleeting as the black bird Dillinger describes her as, and as such the two characters are best separate, suffering, pining for the other’s company. From the press and commercials everyone expects Christian Bale to share the screen with Johnny. To my recollection, they have one small scene together. There’s barely any screen sharing between anybody, everyone is isolated and desperate and it’s great. Moody.
The movie’s all about Depp, who is actually a pretty damn good understated actor when he’s not in pirate drag or obscured by outlandish makeup in Tim Burton films. Although, as Edward Scissorhands suggested, Depp could’ve been a silent film star. It’s really something to just watch the thoughts bubbling underneath his face. In the first scene he holds onto a fallen comrade dragging alonside a getaway car. He knows this guy is doomed, and he doesn’t want to let go. Dread is written all over his face. A far cry from Warren Oates’ blustery, explosive portrayal in John Milius’ Dillinger, Depp’s version thinks first and acts second, a contemplative guy who only lives in the present. Oates’ fun thuggish version is probably more accurate to the real-life figure – Public Enemies has been under fire for some inaccuracy – but Depp’s philosopher-criminal compels just as much.
Bale’s G-man Melvin Purvis shoots people with rifles in the back and doesn’t seem to like it much. He’s a hunter, moves like a Terminator, but the look in his eyes says he hates his line of work and he can’t do anything about it, trapped in a job surrounded by incompetents and sadists. He admires his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (a fattened, convincingly cartoonish Billy Crudup) until he realizes he too is just a showman, a mascot for a “war on crime” that will never work. Bale plays Purvis as mechanical, distant, a man obsessed and possibly self-destructive, with no family or friends to speak of. Given limited screentime, he only shows up to kill and to remorse. As a miserable symbol of a system as corrupt and misguided as the men he hunts, Bale plays the part admirably. If you expect an over-the-top tour de force of charisma on par with Al Pacino’s cop in Heat you’ll want to adjust your expectations.
Except for Marion Cotillard, who practically takes over the picture in its second half and does a wonderful job of it, the other characters are relegated to the edges of the frame. Those looking for Pretty Boy Floyd or Baby Face Nelson may want to look at Dillinger instead. That movie focuses on the gang itself. Mann even eschews close-ups for everyone else but his three principal stars. It wasn’t until the credits when I learned Stephen Dorff, David Wenham and Channing Tatum were in the cast – news to me. Claire from LOST has longer face time than they do, in a cameo. A bit maddening, but the way the movie is filmed, they hardly figure into the overall picture anyway.
Filmed with the same Viper cameras Mann used in Collateral and Miami Vice, the digital look looks fine, especially the nighttime scenes, or any time it’s dark. The nightclub scene, with its glitzy red jazz, really did it for me and there’s a scene of the two lovers in a field looks like a lunar landscape. It’s lonely and intimate, a feel HD does very well.
What Public Enemies also does very well is remind you, often, how guns are fucking scary. They’re loud, REALLY loud and they do terrible things to a human body. This time, Mann, King of the Shootout, adds bright-as-hell muzzle flashes to each and every shot, punctuating every blast with a ferocious spear of fire that lights the night.
If there are flaws I’d say the music editing is pretty awkward at times. Eliot Goldenthal’s melodramatic score will swell and then quickly fade away mid-transition. The introductory and closing text isn’t all that necessary either. The movie itself tells us all we need to know. It’s obviously not that concerned with historical fact so why bother with the text?
There are also the complaints that it’s too cold and methodical. Well, I don’t know about that. Depp’s Dillinger is contemplative, I’ll grant that. Bale’s Purvis is some kind of depressed robot, sure. But you look at the gunfights, the bank robberies, the meticulous planning, the moments between Depp and Cotillard and everything Cotillard goes through in the end … There’s nothing cold about it.
I try to think of another director who meshes the mainstream and the art film, who employs similar methods, and I keep coming back to Mamoru Oshii. The same complaints get lobbed at him: cold, distant, emotionally unengaging. They both make “slow” action movies and they both defy expectation. When I first saw Ghost in the Shell I wanted Dragon Ball with guns. When I first saw Miami Vice I wanted Bad Boys with Phil Collins. In both cases I ended up with something much, much richer. I wouldn’t say Public Enemies stands next to Oshii’s best or Mann’s best, but it’s definitely another solid chapter in Mann’s text.