From the first scene of Michael Mann's Public Enemies, I knew the ride would be bumpy. As John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is led through the front gates of a prison, the camera jostles up and down in motion with the characters walking, but with extreme exaggeration. After a few lines of mumbled dialogue the cameraman evidently has a seizure while Dillinger and his jailhouse friends stage a breakout. As Dillinger and his buddies, including John "Red" Hamilton (Jason Clarke) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff), exit with guns blazing, not a moment of it is comprehensible through the frenetic cinematography and abrasively loud gunfire. This is just the beginning of the numerous complaints I have about Public Enemies.
In the year 1933, suave criminal John Dillinger is running wild in Chicago. Robbing banks in "a minute and 40 seconds. Flat." has made him public enemy number 1 for J. Edgar Hoover's (Billy Crudup) FBI. With Dillinger gaining popularity in the public eye for his easy-going demeanor, Hoover is desperate to get the criminal to the electric chair. So he hires Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the man who hunted down and killed Pretty Boy Floyd, to spearhead the manhunt for Dillinger and his associates, including notorious Fed killer Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). But the bulk of the story follows Dillinger in his troubled life, trying to balance his "work" with the love of his life, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
The number one reason Public Enemies fails is it's writer/director Michael Mann. As I described in my opening paragraph, Mann's choice of cinematography was a poor one. Choosing to use an HD handheld video camera, Mann probably wanted the viewer to feel as though he was standing next to John Dillinger. Instead, I felt like I was watching a cheap re-enactment put together for the History Channel. By placing the camera directly into the actor's faces, a sense of claustrophobia sets in, and it makes sitting still very difficult. If that were not bad enough, during the gunfights, understanding what is being shown to you is near impossible. The camera moved so fast and so unsteadily that I would think one character was being shot, and then later in the scene he'd appear again perfectly fine. After just a few seconds of this home video-esque style, my head began to hurt and I started to feel woozy. Throw in the fact that Mann made the gunshots as loud as a sonic boom each, and I couldn't listen to the film either. During a scene showing the famous battle of Little Bohemia, after 20 seconds I had my head buried in my chest, eyes shut, with my hands over my ears, because I was becoming so uncomfortable. My sight and sound, the two senses one needs to enjoy a film, were actually rejecting Public Enemies.
If that weren't enough, Mann's writing skills were lacking greatly as well. (Though he shares billing with 2 other people, it's easier to just write his name). Though full of slick conversation, Public Enemies just doesn't make sense at some points. For example (nothing I'm about to say is a spoiler): the first 40 minutes of the film, the FBI is looking everywhere for Dillinger, and they frequently say they have no leads. Then in the next scene, while Dillinger is in a hotel room with Frechette, the FBI busts down the door and arrests him. That's quite the magic trick Mr. Mann, but how is it done? How could it be that the FBI can go from clueless to busting down his door in a matter of one scene? Well he doesn't explain it, so keep dreaming. For all I know, they did discuss it briefly, but who knows through the mumbled voices of almost every actor in the film. Anybody who has seen a film with Christian Bale knows that he has mastered an American accent. However, the chore of speaking in a southern accent proved too great the task for him. In one of his worst performances, Bale can't quite speak clearly enough to help out the audience. As a friend of mine affectionately put it, "it was like he borrowed his accent from Foghorn Leghorn, and he forgot to use it sometimes". Couldn't have said it better myself. The starpower of Johnny Depp, who tries very hard to save this sinking ship by giving a good but forgettable performance, can't distract us from the fact this film's screenplay is awful. It is painfully slow during most scenes, and then frantically hurried in scenes where valuable information is being thrown around. No medium was ever found in the script, and so the transfer to the screen was just as bad.
Since Mann chose to "put us in the action" rather than tell us an actual story, Public Enemies was an all out failure. Even if I were to forgive the flaws of the screenplay and most of the acting, I'd still give this film a scathing review because of it's direction. It just goes to show that a cast list alone cannot make a film good. You know what I would like to see? A film based on Baby Face Nelson, played by Stephen Graham again. I felt Graham gave the best performance of the film, and I'd like to see him again in the role. That movie might be good. Public Enemies, not so much. My rating (2/10)
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