Has Director Michael Mann lost his marbles or transgressed to a whole new level?
What a divider this one has been. Critics and moviegoers have either been all-for-it (New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells, Roger Ebert, the majority of my friends), or simply impressed by the high level of historical production value but ultimately unswayed and unsatisfied by the hi-def camera action employed throughout and powerful but somewhat silent and muted script phrasings.
No other director I have ever watched has as gradually enveloped me as much in his vision, upon repeated viewings, as Michael Mann (and maybe David Lynch). Mann’s other primarily cited masterpieces, Manhunter , The Last of the Mohicans and yes, 1995’s Heat , were all met by critics and audiences alike largely with ambivalent or negative reactions upon original release
Today, Heat is considered one of the top 10 best films of the 1990s.
With his last two films, the underrated Collateral and vastly underrated Miami Vice , Mann has been redefining the realism able to be captured by hi-definition handheld cameras…and as a result has left his fellow peers in the dust…namely Spielberg and Lucas who have become preoccupied with special effects).
His movies may not do very well in theaters, but they have an AMAZING shelf life. That’s how Mann still manages to pull in an estimated $100 million plus budget like he does on Public Enemies . Will the film gross that much in theaters? Doubtful, considering it’s crushed between the mass-popularity of Transformers 2 and Harry Potter . But will it over the course of its DVD/Blu-ray sales, rental figures, and premium channel/cable TV run? No doubt.
Public Enemies puts you in right in the shoes of the ever-watchable Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, notorious bank robber of the early 1930s Depression-era mid-west who was like a modern-day Robin Hood folk hero to the starving nation. We pick up the story with him strolling into a remote prison facility under an epically immense blue sky and breaking out his captive buddies in a hailstorm of bullets. There is no clearly defined backstory or motive to his seemingly innate criminality, the film just propels itself onward from this point, as though we are walking in at a certain point in the midst of someone else’s life. It’s thrilling.
For perpetrating across so many state lines, he eventually finds himself the prime target of newly instituted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played charismatically by Billy Crudup, although with a slight British accent), who puts a steely FBI ‘G-man’ (FBI slang for Government Man) on the Dillinger dilemma named Melvin Purvis (another haunted performance Christian Bale, who is not as disappointing as people say, just appropriately downgraded from his lavish Batman role). But he just can’t seem to get the job done with the very ‘green’, very ‘young’ men that Hoover keeps sending his way (I hope your picking up on Hoover’s underlying motive here).
Purvis realizes he doesn’t stand a chance against reckless yet efficient already-legendary outlaws like Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the like (operating badass Thompson submachine guns no less) with his adolescent FBI newbies.
He needs cold-hearted, experienced men that are numb to the wear-and-tear of everyday violence (as well as the help of some newly invented phone-tapping devices), and as Dillinger gets more and more reckless robbing banks with his unplanned blitzkrieg techniques, hoping to secure enough loot to steal away with his newly found soulmate Billie Frenchette (a captivating Marion Cotillard, who truly makes the most of what is a strong but pretty straight-forward girlfriend role), Hoover finally grants Purvis his wish…and you probably can guess the rest if you don’t already know.
Mann executes each scene, each moment, in such a low-and-gritty but highly stylized fashion that you feel 100% immersed in this old-time gangster world, more convincingly than you ever have before (Bonnie and Clyde , eat your heart out). He’s always been known as a director who shoots in the present tense, speaking to today’s modern dilemmas and also figuratively in terms of a story’s specific settings, uncaring about what came before or what came after, just concerned with the minute details currently in front of your eyes. And Public Enemies is the pinnacle of his ‘in-the-moment’ fascination, obsession, dedication.
In this way, Mann is the ultimate modernist director of our time. And as John Dillinger himself unabashedly proclaims during one scene,
"We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow."