Welcome to week two of my TV Movie of the Week feature, where I will be reviewing Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s 2009 period crime thriller about one of America’s most notorious criminals, John Dillinger.
It follows Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and various members of his crew throughout their ascendancy in the 1930s. Immediately the mouth begins to water at the prospect of seeing a film all about bank robbers, directed by a man who shot arguably the greatest bank robbery sequence in film history for Heat (1995), not to mention the fact that he’s also known as the king of the crime thriller, with other successful film credits such as Manhunter (1986), The Insider (1999), Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006). Oh yeah, and it stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, two of the most outstanding character actors to have graced our cinema screens. Surely this one’s a home run, isn’t it?
My God, it should’ve been. In the ingredients this film possessed from the outset, it almost seems as if it would be harder to make a poor movie than a good one, and in fact, Mann manages to commit the most cardinal of movie-making sins. As you’ve probably gathered by now, Public Enemies is not a good film, but neither is it a bad film, it’s even worse – it’s a boring film! A view made so much more incredulous when you look at the depth and variety of stellar resources that were available to make this picture an exceptional one.
…you could wear a trilby and not look like a pretentious, Pete Doherty-wannabe douchebag….
Firstly, the setting. Who doesn’t watch a piece of film from 1930s urban America and drool over the slick suits, exuberant nightlife and women that looked twice as beautiful in twice the fabric that we see nowadays? It was a time when you could wear a trilby and not look like a pretentious, Pete Doherty-wannabe douchebag. It’s a period that enriches whatever story is set there.
Then, of course, there comes the story. The most infamous bank robber on America’s history, known not for his violence or cruelty, but his charm and charisma. The perfect antihero, pitted against a police force that underwent some of its most important changes in history, and led by a relentless ‘G Man’ that devoted his foreseeable future to capturing Dillinger and his crew. If you’re not hooked by this alone then there’s something wrong with you… Or you’re not fussed for gangster movies. And I’ve already mentioned the lead cast, who are also supported by Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard, Giovani Ribisi, Stephen Graham, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang, Jason Clarke, Channing Tatum and David Wenham. So how on Earth did Michael Mann not make this one of THE films of 2009? Perhaps it was a result of having far too any Stephen’s on set, but allow me to explain further.
…Michael Mann, shame on you…
From the very first sequence it’s clear that there was something awry with the sound recording in this movie. The volume of some of the dialogue is so low that you find yourself straining to hear it, even with big, booming speakers. To put this into context, I watched the film on DVD, with my bassy surround sound system at 2 o’clock in the morning, and it didn’t even threaten to wake anyone else in the house up. Even when I watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall last week I was told to turn the volume down, and the closest thing to a post-bank robbery shootout in that film is Jason Segel wailing in a top floor penthouse after another embarrassing encounter with his ex-girlfriend. Michael Mann, shame on you.
The sound isn’t the only technical problem though, as many of the sequences are so blurry that they threaten to bring on a headache to even the most motion-tolerant of us. This is a result of the film being shot in high-definition digital video, as apposed to regular 35mm film. This was a creative decision made to the benefit of one of Mann’s previous works, Collateral, as it enhances the close-in, underground feel to the movie. But in the case of Public Enemies, it doesn’t produce the same effect. They were obviously trying for a more documentary-style approach to this biopic, with lots of jolty handhelds to boot, yet surely as acclaimed a director as Mann, would realize that a period piece goes hand in hand with 35mm? At some point he must have sat down and watched a screen test, or the first dailies of the shoot, or even a toddler playing around with a Flip HD camera behind the scenes, and realised how poor the film looked aesthetically. Just a tripod here or there would’ve been nice.
…have very little impact…
If you’ll allow me to continue with the ‘ingredients’ analogy that I touched upon earlier – elements such as the picture format and the sound quality, as well as many other things, should be there to enhance a film, not define it. Much in the same way that garlic is used in many dishes, it is combined with other subtle ingredients to make the flavour better, without becoming an overpowering taste in itself. You should never notice that a film is using HD digital video or 35mm film or intricacies in the sound recording when watching it, you should just come away thinking that it was a good movie and then realise exactly why that was afterwards. In trying to be too creative, or maybe even just careless, some of the ‘ingredients’ of this film became far too prominent, far too often. Like a gherkin in a Big Mac.
It’s made even more frustrating by the fact that these technical hitches really do affect the performances on-screen. Depp has so many great lines in the film that could, and should, have been more memorable, but because his dialogue is so often drowned out by the background noise, they fall flat and consequently have very little impact. One of the best examples of the poor sound (ironically, not involving Depp) is in the final scene of the film, which is an emotional time for one of the main characters, as they receive some tear-jerking information, and all we can hear is a bloody fan whirring away in the background! It was something of a crime against cinema and once again, I can’t believe that the creatives behind the movie didn’t try to change it in post-production.
…perfectly cast as the unrelenting-cop-who-sometimes-operates-in-a-grey-area-of-the-law-to-get-the-job-done…
I’d love to say that performances of the cast make up for the poorer aspects, but once again, it pains me to say that they don’t. Marion Cotillard, playing Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette, cast perfectly as the pretty, poor girl in a rich man’s world, is largely uninspiring, and I found myself failing to understand why Depp’s character goes to such great lengths in the film ‘get’ her. I’m pretty sure I would’ve just shrugged and moved on. Christian Bale, again, perfectly cast as the unrelenting-cop-who-sometimes-operates-in-a-grey-area-of-the-law-to-get-the-job-done, Melvin Purvis, is also pretty boring. We don’t get any sense of ‘who’ this guy really is, instead we are just left with the ‘what’. The filmmakers would have done well to give the character some clear emotional goals and motives, as the two-dimensional nature of the character isn’t covered up by Bale’s annoying accent choice.
Even the great Johnny Depp, probably the most perfectly cast actor in the film, fails to really bring his character to life. The on-again off-again relationship that he shares with the hair residing over his top lip is about as much of a journey that the character is given and, as with Purvis, Dillinger isn’t really given any deep-seated desires or ambitions. Although Public Enemies is described as a biopic, it fails to really teach us anything about the person it’s biographising, which you’d think is probably pretty essential, really. And this kind of sums up the whole movie, to be honest – very flat and uninteresting, which is a real shame because the script itself is actually not half bad. I’ve mentioned the great lines that Dillinger is given, but the structure of the story is also very good, an aspect that can often prove very challenging when adapting a biopic for the screen. Although, for a bank robbery movie, there wasn’t much bank robbing…
…something more along the lines of orange squash…
Despite my largely scathing review, I would still implore you to go and watch Public Enemies on ITV4, this Thursday at 9PM, just to indulge yourself in the fantasy of what could have been for this film. Under different circumstances, I could have been describing one of the greatest movies of our time, the Coca Cola of modern cinema perhaps. But alas, I’m afraid we’re stuck with something more along the lines of orange squash.