What was Michael Mann thinking? He had a great story, good actors, a budget and the interest of the audience — but he squandered it with confusing storytelling, an underused cast, and strange cinematography. It all added up to a jolty, disjunct, and uncomfortable film.
Johnny Depp plays the charming bank robber John Dillinger who knocked over financial institutions in the midwest, got arrested, broke out, and did it all over again. Along the way, he picks up the affections of Billie Frechette, the adorable coat check girl played by Marion Cotillard, and the attentions of the overeager J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and hungry bloodhound agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).
If it was attempting to tap into the gangster drama of the early 30s (which we know people in a recession go for), it fell short. If it was trying to remake the genre for a modern audience, it was more annoying that fruitful. We like Dillinger, but only because we know we are supposed to. His character is not particularly likable or despicable. His motives are largely unknown or understood. Boredom, perhaps? Dillinger was loved by the public for his ability to stick it to “the man.” He did what they couldn’t. There is one scene, the prison transfer, that shows this charm, but surely that was not enough to win over the sympathies of a nation? His wily nature is only sometimes evident, as in the squad room scene.
Cotillard did the best she could with what she was given. She shines in her main scene, when she protects Dillinger. Elsewhere she is almost annoyingly ditzy. Bale, too, has little to recommend him. His best scene is when we first meet him, hunting down Pretty Boy Floyd. He is stoic, assured and cold.
Overall, the best scene may be the ending, when a Myrna Loy montage peppers an intense sequence.
Lastly, and most annoyingly, was the camera work. It is almost all handheld, shaky, and tightly zoomed. When it isn’t that, it is some sort of digital HD that makes it look like a History Channel re-enacted special on mobsters. Here’s the thing — “old-timey” movies don’t work with a high-tech look (See: Beowulf by Robert Zemeckis). Public Enemies would have benefitted greatly from a least one Panavision with breathing 35mm film. That and another re-write to smooth out the bumps between video-game violence and a director who could have brought out the best in his actors.