I love gangster films. Not the silly modern gangbangers, the real fun and classic American stuff. Jimmy Cagney at the top of the world, Humphrey Bogart holding up in a petrified forest and Edward G. Robinson as a lethal little caesar. These were the classic crime films and stars that helped lead to the birth of the film noir, where even more gangsters took the streets of cinema.
Much like the western cowboy, the portrayal of the classic depression era gangster has been lost in both the mainstream and underground independent film scenes, only to be seen sparsely. Reasoning? Maybe filmmakers and producers believe that these characters are unrelatable as they belong to a time of American history that is long gone, too far gone to draw in enough attention.
The thought of Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies, being considered a stereotypical summer blockbuster is almost baffling because of the subject matter. Remove the star powers of Christian Bale and Johnny Depp and you might see the film struggle to get by on Mann’s name alone.
Take a look at 3:10 To Yuma, the western pitting Bale against another megastar, Russell Crowe. What exactly separates it from the 2006 western Seraphim Falls or the far better 2005 Australian set western The Proposition? Those two films had trouble finding their market, while the Bale/Crowe film made roughly $53 million in the United States. Even the well reviewed Brad Pitt fronted film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford flew somewhat under the mainstream’s radar.
Mann’s attempt at breaking into the public’s resistance of off-genre film tells the story of legendary bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) and partners-in-crime Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Dillinger’s romance with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and their being hunted down by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Bale).
It should be known that even though Public Enemies sees its release a week after the action-heavy Transformers 2 and a few weeks before the next Harry Potter installment, the film plays as though it belongs in an art house theater instead of the sticky floors of the local multiplex.
Mann shot the film with HD cameras rather than the standard techniques, and the difference is fairly noticeable. Mann also used high definition cameras for his 2004 film Collateral. While personal taste differs among us all and the debate between the quality of HD and film rages on among film fanatics, it mostly works here, as it gave a lot of the film a documentary style and crisp feel. For example, a few of the bank robbing scenes seem as though the men are being followed around by a camera crew documenting the events for a television show.
Mann uses a plethora of different shots to keep things interesting, opting at times for the long, taken aback scenes, such as an extended shot of Dillinger being escorted to the doors of a prison along a dusty road in the very beginning of the film. Mann also gets in close with the nitty gritty, providing the viewers with the blood, sweat and tears of both sides of the chase and emotional result of a gunfight.
Anyone who knows Michael Mann as a director knows he is at the top of the list when it comes to choreographing gunfight scenes. If I think quickly among modern filmmakers, John Woo might be the only person to rank above him. Both Heat and Collateral contained memorable and impressive use of gunfire by way of visuals and sound. Mann continues that here, but in a whole new way by taking things back about 75 years to a different time and place. Shootout locations range from daylit streets and dark wooded areas with troubling terrain.
Every time I watch, think about and then write about a period piece film, I can’t help but take setting and feel into account, in a usually gushing fashion. If a filmmaker is trying to convince an audience that this really is 1933, that person better do a damn good job at making sure the locations are impressive and detailed. The scope of Mann’s film absolutely blew me away in its way of making me believe the year the film is set in. I might be a sucker for the stuff though as I enjoyed the mediocre The Newton Boys because of its interesting aesthetics. Mann’s film gives us all the fixings of a good period piece by focusing on not only the aesthetic visuals you can literally see, but also by giving insight into the forensic and technological tools of the time. The costumes are slick, the guns look and sound authentic and the surrounding locations are all true to the historical accounts of Dillinger and his boys.
You can’t rely just on a pretty setting to truly achieve that authentic time period feeling though. Johnny Depp plays his Dillinger like he never saw a stereotypical gangster film before, which is a very good thing. Too often might an actor fall into the trap of fast-talking gangsters who apparently ended every sentence with “Ya see?” Depp in a way reinvents it all. People all too often say he plays the same character over and over again. While that might be true in his films done with Tim Burton, that couldn’t be further from the truth here. Public Enemies is Depp’s film and this is some of the man’s greatest acting yet, as he successfully morphs himself into the ultra suave and charismatic John Dillinger.
The film is an all around strongly acted one. The cast isn’t exactly a star studded one, but there are a good amount of quality names and on-the-rise actors and actresses involved that give it an extra push. Christian Bale is of course the other large name involved and does a great job at commanding his role. While I don’t blame him for his somewhat uninspired performance in this year’s Terminator: Salvation, this stoic yet somewhat subdued performance is what he needed to get himself a boost. Channing Tatum, Marion Cotillard and Billy Crudup all add performances worthy of note that round out this convincing film.
The real hinging piece of Mann’s film is the terrific narrative he constructed. Mann has proven himself to be a great storyteller of events both fictional and historical and Public Enemies only furthers this claim. Pacing here is qualified as a sort of build up to a key moment, and then rebuild technique. Things heat up, but then settle down only to reheat after more development. Most characters are handled well. This is a brooding tale on all sides.
Included is the physical and emotional struggle of Pervis and J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) during their struggles and difficulties of trying to capture Dillinger. All the raw and sometimes hidden emotion of John Dillinger was beautiful captured by Mann. Dillinger’s relationship with Billie Frechette might turn out to be the greatest love stories to hit theaters this whole entire year. It’s a challenging and tragic relationship, and Mann’s raw and honest portrayal of it is gripping and touching.
Public Enemies is truly professional filmmaking and is what we have come to expect from Michael Mann. If you sift out all the cheap thrillers and bloated action films thrown into theaters during the summer, you’ll find this absolutely entertaining and enjoyable gem. On the large scale it’s an epic crime tale, up close it’s a brooding, sulking and dark story of human exchange and relationships that channels the spirit of the golden age of Hollywood.