Judge Gordon Sullivan ain't thinking about tomorrow. Next Thursday has his mind occupied.
Our review of Public Enemies: 2-Disc Special Edition, published December 8th, 2009, is also available.
America's Most Wanted.
Although he's done period work before with The Last of the Mohicans, Michael Mann isn't the first director most people think of when they hear historical film. However, the story of infamous outlaw bank robber John Dillinger seems like the perfect story for the director who brought us the stylish violence of Heat and Miami Vice. Although they seem like a perfect match, Public Enemies never quite reaches the heights that its talent promises.
Facts of the Case
John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, Blow) is a bank robber during the Great Depression who has managed to win the hearts of the people and the ire of the government. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) assigns Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, American Psycho) the task of bringing Dillinger to justice. It's a cat-and-mouse game between the beloved criminal and the man sent to track him down.
When watching biographical films, I tend to want one of two things. Either, the director should present some new take on the material, reveal some new aspect of character or history for me to consider. Or, the same old story must be told in a stylistically superior way, well enough to make me forget I know what's going to happen. Public Enemies doesn't really do either.
The basic story of Public Enemies is "Dillinger robs a bank; Dillinger gets caught; Dillinger escapes; Dillinger robs a bank; Dillinger gets caught; Dillinger escapes; Dillinger gets shot to death." Nothing new there. Mann includes some hints at another film, one where the focus wasn't so completely on Dillinger. For instance his portrait of Melvin Purvis, Dillinger persuer, hints at the dark deeds that officers of the law music allow themselves to do to catch bad men (and the toll it takes on them, as the coda implies). We also get a rather sinister view of J. Edgar Hoover, and there are hints that the current civil rights crises that many see in things like the Patriot Act had their roots in his establishment of the FBI. These would both be fascinating topics for Mann to explore, but he keeps the focus tightly on Dillinger and his various escapades, all of which are presented in a shallow and formulaic manner.
The rather tame story of Dillinger would have been okay if Mann had brought something more to the table visually. He mixes traditional 35mm photography with shots taken from HD cameras. There is potential in this collision of styles because the 35mm has the saturated look which effectively evokes the period, while the smaller size of the HD cameras allows for more freedom of movement. Taken individually, they're both amazingly realized. The more static film shots have an elegiac quality that evokes both the period and Dillinger's ultimate fate, while the hand-held stuff stands up with the best of Mann's previous work like Heat. The problem, however, is the transition between these modes. There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason for switching from 35mm to HD and back. Sometimes it's tied to violence and heightened emotional intensity, but sometimes it feels like the switch happens haphazardly, like Mann decided he had the cameras on set so he might as well use them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My complaints make the movie seem worse than it is. Really, it's a good, but not great film, and that's problematic considering the talent involved. Everyone here is at the height of their powers, and Public Enemies should be slam-dunk, no questions asked masterpiece of a film. Instead, it's 2 hours and 20 minutes of perfectly watchable gangsterism that never transcends the genre trappings.
Although there's nothing transcendent in the film, the acting is almost enough to push it over. I don't recall the last film I saw that was this perfectly cast, and generally only small-ensemble dramas get perfect actors for every role. Public Enemies benefits from the talents of Depp and Bale most obviously, but Billy Crudup's transformation as Hoover is fantastic, and it was good to see Stephen Dorff in a pretty meaty role. The only possible casting misstep is Mario Cottiliard as Dillinger's love interest. She does fine in the role, but it feels a little underwritten, which wastes her talents.
Public Enemies may be merely a "good" film, but it's been given a great release on Blu-ray. The film's 2.40:1 aspect ratio is clearly and cleanly transferred. There's quite a bit of grain in much of the 35mm film stock, but considering the natural-light shooting it looks entirely appropriate and never distracting. The HD material looks predictably good, with strong detail and deep blacks. The DTS-HD track keeps the room booming with a solid low end and clear dialogue.
Extras are extensive and informative. There are numerous featurettes that focus on the making of the film, Dillinger the man, the film's locations, as well as the mechanics of crime fighting in that era. Michael Mann also contributes a commentary track that is as informative as it is informal, while Universal's U-Control offers up some picture-in-picture content and an interactive timeline. There's also a digital copy of the film included.
If you don't own an iPhone or iPod touch, feel free to skip this paragraph, but Public Enemies is compatible with a new app, Pocket Blu. I downloaded the app onto my iPhone, and it allowed me to control the film on my PS3 from the app. It also shows time elapsed/time remaining on the feature. I wish this app worked with all Blu-ray discs, because it's a very effective remote and there's the promise of content to be downloaded to your iPhone/iPod to watch wherever.
Public Enemies could have been so much more, but it seems unfair to knock it too bad considering we get some of Mann's great visual style, the performances of Depp and Bale, and the still-interesting story of one of America's most famous outlaws. I don't know that this is a must-own disc, but fans of Depp, Bale, or Mann owe it to themselves to give it at least a rental.
Like Dillinger, Public Enemies has its share of faults, but it's not guilty.
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