I’m kind of a sucker for gangster movies. There’s something about the interplay between cops and robbers that makes for a good flick. So when I heard that Michael Mann was making Public Enemies, the story of real-life bank robber John Dillinger, and it starred Johnny Depp, I was intrigued. Tack on Christian Bale as the G-Man assigned to track him down, and Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s girlfriend, and I was completely hooked. Would Mann be able to spin this all-star cast into the same kind of gold he made with Heat, or would he be stuck with the dull straw that was Miami Vice?
A little of both. At its core Public Enemies is a good movie. It’s a great story: a bank robber that captures the public’s imagination and gets treated as a hero against a budding FBI, obsessed with proving that their “modern” investigative techniques can crack down on crime overrunning the country. The two sides play cat and mouse, with the upper hand swinging back and forth between them. That’s the kind of story directors kill for. And in the hands of the man who made Heat and Last of the Mohicans, it should be a slam dunk. But it’s not.
There are a number of technical issues that prevent Public Enemies from being the great movie it could have been. Mann employed a mixture of digital and film cameras for the shoot, and the transition between scenes shot in digital and scenes shot on film is jarring. So jarring that it kept pulling me out of the movie. In addition to the transitions being clunky, the overall look of the digital shots doesn’t fit the gangster genre. The film shots have grain, texture, and depth, while the digital one are crisp and clean. Gangster movies shouldn’t be clean. Unfortunately the camera work isn’t the movie’s only problem.
Marion Cotillard is an amazing actress. Her performance in La Vie en Rose was fantastic and worthy of her Oscar win. That film was in her native French, so she didn’t have to worry about an accent. In Public Enemies she did, and from her performance I can only assume that her character was born in Montreal, raised in the Deep South, and currently resides in the Midwest. Her accent morphs constantly, sometimes from word to word in a single sentence. It’s bad. Really, really bad.
In spite of the technical challenges and Cotillard’s struggles, Public Enemies manages to be an entertaining movie. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are great, and Stephen Graham is amazing as Baby Face Nelson. Unfortunately with my high expectations, these performances weren’t enough to completely satisfy me.