Remember when “Miami Vice” came out a few years ago? It had everything going for it: a truly accomplished action director, a terrific cast and captivating source material. It promised to be a fun, interesting ride — maybe not an Oscar film, but solid summer fare. Then it came out and we got an overlong, unsatisfying mash of maudlin storytelling and Colin Farrell’s sideburns. Sighs of disappointment could be heard from miles around.
Mann does a little better in his latest, “Public Enemies,” but I do see the signs of a repeat performance. Again we have the truly talented director. We have the fabulous cast (Depp! Bale! Cotillard!) And we have excellent source material: the films follows the rise and fall of John Dillinger, a 1930s bank robber and show-boater who lived fast and died young. And, in general, it’s an homage to every gangland film ever made since Jimmy Cagney was walking. Mann appears to be hoping reignite our fascination with amoral bank robbers who shoot at police while riding the running boards of their getaway cars. And it’s a good time for it — anti-heroes abound in today’s films, and moral ambiguity fits our current sensibilities just fine.
Written by: Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Seen at: Loew’s Boston Common
All this would be great, if Mann and Johnny Depp (who plays Dillinger) had created an anti-hero anyone could actually care about. No one’s a bigger fan of Depp than I, but it’s pretty obvious he’s phoning it in here. Dillinger was a fascinating character. He understood the power of the media in shaping history, and he played it to his advantage. He was also fearless, and would walk in and out of police stations and prisons just to show that he could. We see scenes of both these attributes, but the real Dillinger; his motives, his inner life and his personality largely remain a mystery. Depp appears to be under the impression that a twitch of the eyebrow and a a half-smile constitute fine acting, and we know he knows better.
Depp’s supporting case fares much better. I was completely underwhelmed by Marion Cotillard’s performance as Dillinger’s dame, Billie, until a scene late in the narrative when she lets loose with a vicious, spitting, animal soliloquy that stops the show. It’s a version of “Stand By Your Man” with a hell of a lot more chutzpah. Bale does a surprisingly well-shaded performance of FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, assigned to the task force to capture Dillinger. Bale lures us into the belief that we’re watching the normal trope of the relentless, obsessed lawman and then shows us a real human being who loves his job and fears the increasingly draconian methods he has to use to do it. And Billy Crudup shows up doing a pretty damn good impression of a young J. Edgar Hoover — he’s sleazy and insincere in just the right way. Mann also includes a bunch of fine actors who show up, yell “Hey, I’m here!” and then leave again; Lili Taylor, LeeLee Sobieski and Giovanni Ribisi are just a few that make up the carousel. Since this story basically rests on Depp’s shoulders, it’s still pretty disappointing, but at least we have some good people to look at in the meantime.
I always give Mann props for taking chances with his camera work, but he’s doing some weird stuff in here. As with all action films made in the last ten years, the movie suffers a severe case of shaky-camera syndrome. Mann also seems way too fond of extreme close and low shots, sending the audience right up into the actors’ nostrils (an amateur mistake that’s far below what Mann’s capable of).
There is, however, one brilliantly executed action sequence: a shoot-out at a safe-house, followed by a midnight car chase. In this scene handheld cameras are used to their intended effect: a sense of controlled chaos that makes the audience feel as if they too are running through the woods, dodging the sniper fire. The car chase especially is wonderful: two cars barreling down a highway, with shooters firing while hanging on to the running boards for dear life while the night closes in on them. It’s a familiar scene, no doubt; we’ve seen this chase scene since the beginning of narrative film. And it still manages to terrify, exhilarate and take our breath away.
It’s a classic for a reason.