Michael Mann is the de facto king of cops and robbers city street shootouts. Public Enemies makes a nice shift to period piece old timey stuff with no loss in crisp edge. Few people can argue that Miami Vice was a misfire of epic proportion. The only bad thing left over from Vice is the use of HD cameras. It seems like a Depression era story would be a great chance to use film with a nice heavy grain. HD cinematography looks a lot like a camcorder in intense lighting, although black fidelity is through the roof. I have never seen film qualities quite like this, but it proves a double edged sword. Clarity and detail are incredible, but motion can be choppy sometimes, like a cheap LCD TV display. Still, the biggest problem is the absence of good ol’ film grain. Hi tech picture quality is an anachronism next to a 1930s setting.
Johnny Depp gives a peak performance, ultra cool and glowering, and the comparison with Clark Gable is apt. Depp is used to carrying a film on his own, and he bears the brunt of the weight with no effort. John Dillinger is tailor made for Depp, and the action is top notch. Christian Bale plays FBI honcho Melvin Purvis, trading in red faced screaming (Terminator) for a reserved performance that is believable uptight fed. Billy Crudup gives awesome voice work and Bugs Bunny expressionism to his role as that two faced bastard J. Edgar Hoover. Giovanni Ribisi makes an appearance, but Stephen Dorff’s career reprise is what I was interested in. Marion Cotillard plays Dillinger’s love Billie Frechette, and she’s pretty great.
The story follows Purvis as the FBI gets cuts teeth and gets sea legs, and Dillinger and his gang as they push a good thing too far. Mann has plenty of experience filming bank robberies, and he does a fine job showing some more of his trademark expertise. The robberies are great, but the bulk of the hard action comes from street level confrontation and bungled FBI assaults. One thing you can give Mann and company is that they traded in the angular city streets from Heat for natural (and quite beautiful) woodland settings with nothing loss in translation. The vehicles, the clothing, the weapons, and the environment are all meticulously detailed and accurate. The only questionable setting is a wiretapping room, where they make fresh hot press vinyl recordings.
Of course, when you go to see a Michael Mann ‘joint’ you damn well expect shootouts of the highest caliber (haw haw haw). Public Enemies delivers the goods, never reaching unattainable Heat greatness, but getting close. What this movie offers in the action department is a demonstration of the true effects of a bullet on the human body. When Pretty Boy Floyd (an unrecognizable Channing Tatum) is gunned down by Purvis, it isn’t a simple blood packet job. Floyd’s liver goes up in a devastating wound that is more accurate than normal Hollywood pinprick entries and exits. This is followed throughout the film, heavier rounds given unique sound and effect, from the BAR rifle that Homer (Dorff) uses, to the large rifles that FBI heavyweights employ. In the gunplay department, Mann pushes this niche of the action genre forward, something hinted at in Miami Vice (a la the .50 Barrett M82), but fully realized here.
The story is strong as well, mirroring the romantic criminal thread from Heat, but much more stirring. Chalk this up to better chemistry between Depp and Cotillard than DeNiro could bring to the table. The better than usual musical score is on top of things too, with skillful employment by Elliot Goldenthal (Heat’s composer) and a nice touch of blues. At a horse track race, literal and figurative rose colored glasses mark Dillinger’s half glass full character with portentous omens. The foreshadowing is at once artful and clear, and the relationship between Dillinger and Frechette (and his crew for that matter) is never overdone. It is the right amount of talking, the right words said. Dillinger knew that the public was the key to his criminal success, and everyday citizens attacking the gang presages the inevitable end. The film never misses a chance to display classic noir endings that we expect (blaze of glory Tommy gun firing) and adds wonderful vignettes of original filmmaking (the last breath fading with gun smoke).
The film comes to an exceptional climax, and just the right amount of epilogue and closure comes after (best last line in a long time). The end is an instance where the HD cinematography adds rather than detracts from the film. The minimal graphics are as smooth as ice, and the simultaneous foreground background focus achieved from the digital render is striking. Clarity, clarity, clarity is what it’s all about, where most movies would show obfuscating blood effects. Public Enemies is deeply romantic and rousing, thoughtful and entertaining.
These are things that have been hard to come by this summer.