I’m a bit surprised, honestly. Every inch and ounce of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies has felt like a surefire critical triumph since the project’s first announcement. Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, while not an obvious first choice, is about as intriguing of a casting choice as we’ve had in some time, and the fact that Christian Bale signed on for a mere supporting, wall-dressing role proved just how top-shelf this production would be. Then the trailers and “behind the scenes” clips waved Hello, and Mann’s handheld-HD/digital approach suddenly gave the non-fiction period film an unconventional, against-the-grain look. All cylinders seemed to be connected.
Judging by the critical consensus thus far, however, Public Enemies doesn’t seem to be the deafening-applause-warranting, anti-blockbuster blockbuster that initial hunches led to assume. My plan is to see the film tomorrow night, in lieu of a workless pre-holiday Friday, and I’m going to write down my post-game thoughts here. For now, though, I’m stricken to the opinions of the nation’s top and mid-level critics, which, as of now, rests at a somewhat-disconcerting 53% (43 positive out of 81 total reviews). The thumbs-up pieces are largely comprised of raves and gushes, while the boo-hoos range from totally pissed to disappointingly indifferent. The most commonly widespread complaint seems to be that Public Enemies goes to such massive lengths to nail the historical accuracy and authentic 1930s’ look that it sacrifices powerful drama as a byproduct. If that’s true, I’m in for letdown central.
The clips that I’ve seen have all worked for me, though, so I’ll “Matt Barone” is still penciled in under the Reservations list at Cafe Judgment. For those still on the fence about this one, here’s a free sampling of the film’s reviews, after the jump:
First up, veteran critic Eric D. Snider, from his self-titled website:
“Public Enemies,” an impeccably produced crime drama that doesn’t trade intelligence for excitement and offers plenty of both, largely follows the traditional gangster-movie format. Played with understated charisma by Johnny Depp, Dillinger relishes his lifestyle. He sees being re-incarcerated just eight weeks after finishing a nine-year prison term as a minor setback, and breaks out immediately. He flirts with beautiful women, and usually gets them, too. Asked about his tastes by one such object of his affection, he says, “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else do you need to know?”
The thrills are certainly there in the sensationally choreographed prison break that opens the movie under a bright blue Midwestern sky that stretches across the wide screen like a cathedral ceiling. Dappled by fluffy white clouds, it is the kind of sky that tends to show up as a backdrop in paintings of the Madonna and Child, but here offers a sharp contrast to the long-distance image of Dillinger and his friend Red (Jason Clarke), quickly striding toward an enormous, looming prison. Mr. Mann goes in closer once the men enter the prison, where they help disarm the guards, and he pulls back again for the long view as Dillinger fires on the prison with a machine gun while the escapees make a run for the getaway car.
By force of Hollywood habit, you might expect that this vision of the suddenly lone gunman would serve as a prelude to another exciting joy ride about living fast and dying young. Instead it’s followed by a striking short scene of a wounded escapee being dragged alongside the speeding car while Dillinger and another man struggle to pull him up. In the most startling shot, Mr. Mann places the camera right next to the fallen man, pointing it up at Dillinger’s dark, ominous figure as he almost blots out that blue sky. Dillinger holds on until the man’s grip wilts, the dead body slipping away in one direction as the car races off in the other. Laying the blame elsewhere, he next tosses another man out of the moving car.
This, then, is Mr. Mann’s Dillinger: brave enough to stand his ground, loyal, ruthless. There’s a hint of the demonic in this portrait, particularly when the outlaw is gliding through a bank, his long, dark coat fanning around him and a tommy gun in one hand. This is the stuff of legends, of shoot-’em-ups and matinee gangsters with jaunty smiles. Mr. Mann loves this apparition of calculated bravura and initially he frames the first few heists as seamlessly choreographed set pieces. During the first robbery he shows Dillinger and two accomplices from high overhead, the camera peering straight down as the men fan across a black-and-white bank floor like MGM dancers. When Dillinger leaps across a railing, he soars.
Since the consensus rest just a hair above the halfway grade, it seems only fair to point out some unhappy thoughts. Such as this, from The Onion’s AV Club writer Keith Phipps:
Mann fills the background with a lot of fascinating detail but often has a hard time keeping the foreground in focus. Sometimes literally: Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti opt for hard, handheld digital-video images. These lend a sense of excitement to some of the action scenes—particularly a thrilling nighttime chase through the Wisconsin woods—but often give the film an unpleasantly unfinished look. That unfortunately matches an unfinished feel. Neither Depp nor Bale get a chance to get beneath the surface of their characters, supporting characters bleed together, and a love story between Depp and his moll (Marion Cotillard) never finds a heartbeat.
Mann, as ever, remains a master of methodical pursuit, but as the film inches toward Dillinger’s fateful night at Chicago’s Biograph Theater, he doesn’t offer much beyond methodical pursuit. Depp goes about the business of not getting caught; Bale goes about the business of catching him. In the end it doesn’t really come to mean all that much. Mann reduces a legendary game of cat-and-mouse to the size of a standard police procedural. His refusal to mythologize Dillinger’s exploits is audacious, but too much of Public Enemies feels disappointingly smaller than life.
One more less-than-cheerful write-up for the road. David Denby from New Yorker, take it away:
Yet, for all its skill, “Public Enemies” is not quite a great movie. There’s something missing—a sense of urgency and discovery, a more complicated narrative path, a shrewder, tougher sense of who John Dillinger is. The bank robber had a brief run as a national figure. Paroled after nearly nine years in the Indiana pen, on May 10, 1933, he rampaged his way around the country, often living openly in Chicago and smaller cities, and was shot dead by a variety of cops and agents fourteen months later, on July 22, 1934. As the movie tells it (Mann wrote the screenplay with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, adapting Bryan Burrough’s 2004 book, also called “Public Enemies”), Dillinger was a gentleman thug, loyal to his friends and to his hat-check girlfriend, Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard with a combination of desperate hope and fear that is enormously appealing. Relaxed and assured, Depp, with his fine, sharply cut features and lithe body, turns Dillinger into a supremely confident young man. “What do you want?” Cotillard asks him. “Everything, right now,” he says. It’s the quintessential movie gangster’s demand, although Depp speaks softly, without the snarling boastfulness of the great actors (Paul Muni, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson) who played gangsters when Dillinger was alive. There’s a faint tone of mockery in Depp’s mildness, in his secret half smile, though his face can darken with rage. Mann and Depp’s idea of Dillinger as an unruffled prince of crime is extremely enjoyable. Yet, as the movie goes on, you begin to question whether it makes much sense.