The essence of “Public Enemies” is that it continues the aspect of Michael Mann is his ability to keep audiences on the edge. He isn’t groundbreaking in a conventional sense per se yet the storytelling is effective and ample. His visual style and direction of actors is visceral yet one can see holes. His latest venture, his first after the quite effective (and again visceral) but underrated “Miami Vice” is a grand experiment and one that exceeds expectations a lot of the time. Mann is the only one truly using the aspect of these new cams on widespread new releases in this kind of real world environment and not a special effects extravanganza. There is a balance between the aesthetic, the realistic and the artistic that is at play here.
Another interesting balance especially within this specific picture and its subject matter is its appeal. At the screening at the Academy last night which also included a significant amount of recruited “normal moviegoers” to build buzz, I was surprised to truly see a cross-section that one would not think directly would be influenced by this kind of “Scarface” epic from the 30s and yet it speaks. Whereas “Scarface” became about the sheer bravado and “the world is mine”, there is a different aspect here. John Dillinger (played here by Johnny Depp with restrained gusto) gets what he wants and of course gets it in the end. Live fast and leave a good looking corpse (albeit with a few bullet holes). The perspective that one can see right away is how viewable that this film will be in a couple years. The picture that comes to mind is Gary Oldman and “Dracula”. While the performances are nowhere near than nuanced, there is a sensibility to the proceedings that has a timeless capability
But coming back to the actual demos in play of the picture, the urban population came out in force to Beverly Hills. The line was around the block for the test/buzz audience per se. Two younger African Americans sitting in front of me as well as what would be considered a group of late teen Ventura teenagers behind me were experiencing the same movie and reacting in different but similar ways. The African American in their late teens/early 20s watched Johnny Depp slinking through a club and then going after his new love played by Oscar winner Marion Coiullard. He says he will never abandon her. Later on after bashing a guy who won’t let him talk to her at the coat check, Dillinger gives her his life story since she says she doesn’t know him. He says his mother died when he was born. His dad beat him because he didn’t know any better. He like fast cars, good food, whiskey and her. Period. That got the entire audience in a full applause. Lots of shout out for him at the screen. The word I repeatedly heard is “He’s a pimp” which is a mark of endearance. Similar to “Scarface”. This guy took what he wanted and made no bones about it. The only irony is that he was a criminal, a gangsta. What is interesting is that back in the 50s and the 60s, the people that could anything and be the cool kids on the block were the scientists rocketing people into space. Like Obama, we need a rock star like that in space.
But “Public Enemies” shows that rare instance, and whose impression will be seen at the box office, the impression on modern culture. Now in terms of acting, Mann as usual can simply get some mesmerizing elements at times from his people but this is also due to the intimacy of this camera and what it can show. There is still a shortcoming/advantage to this Cinealta F23 HD Camera he is using. The cam lists for $150,000 on the Sony website and is at the forefront but it still at times does not look as good as some of the low light elements you can current see on the Sony Red One which has a 35mm chip. Now the great element of this whole discussion is that Mann is bringing the idea to the forefront of these cameras in a conventional shoot but getting A- list actors to allow themselves to be shot in this way. It is much more in your face. It was one of the aspects that made the training sequences in “Ali” pop and is improved here.
The system looks beautiful in day shoots with not as many lights. Even in sequences like the club in the beginning of “Miami Vice” or even here in the lusher bordello nightclub near the beginning as well, the camera maintains an interesting balance where it doesn’t look like video. However during one shootout in the woods where the blast elements of the Tommy Guns are in full view, there is both a disconnect and a connect that pulls you both ways especially if you have a production background but are also thinking of how the audiences will perceive the film. This specific sequence using almost completely natural light is not as overly grainy as it was before in earlier Mann films with this technology but the lack of true rack focus and the shutter speed makes certain running elements inside and with the car chases look like it was shot on a video camera (which it is) but of a much lower grade. This is also because of slight blur. It begins to look like guerilla filmmaking but of film school technology. It is not there yet in terms of this.
Now on the flip side, it makes what you are seeing extremely visceral and personal. Being in the room only with Johnny with what you can tell is just the cameraman with Mann possibly way out somewhere on a Bluetooth video tap or even right behind the camera allows 360 video shoot flow. That is exciting especially if you are talking a massively budgeted film like this. It is like play acting with the biggest toy you can find. When the Tommy Guns start going off, you feel you are right in the middle of it. In terms of the technical right when the Tommy Guns blare, one can see the shutter speed change. However there is something very cool about watching Depp just unleash a blaze of gunfire in that room. You can imagine how loud it was. It is definitely a different experience for him for sure than “Pirates” or even Burton, his longtime collaborator.
This brings the aspect to the acting. Because of his cache and the fact that A-list actors are now mostly doing movies because purely of directors with scripts as the second consideration, other lower tier actors on the totem tend to follow that perception. This time in films is very interesting for this with using this type of camera because unlike the past 80 years, because of it there is less down time on set because the light (unless you are doing ultra stylized) is less of an issue (or in terms of a motion capture film) is not an issue at all.
Johnny gets the brunt of the interaction with the camera and seems extremely game for it. The camera in close up captures truly what you look like so the make up has to be ultra fine and almost invisible or you see the imperfections. At one point in a bed scene, the camera is so close up that you can see the imperfections in Depp’s skin which are few. Many actors would not be game for this especially at Depp’s current stature. This is also the first time we have seen him looking like his original 21 Jump Street persona in terms of look with the hair and clean shaven. It is this point for me that I most see Johnny having met him throughout his career because usually he disappears almost completely. The research he did for the role and his family’s own criminal past he has discussed in the media obviously helps him but doesn’t play the character glib. He plays Dillinger as methodical but he shows the man as still enjoying himself yet practical. The parallel I can make is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can”. This movie however much more visceral.
While the ending which has Mann giving homage to old school Hollywood with Clark Cable and “Manhattan Melody” seems a bit over-artsy, it is pertinent and upon further reflection, very classical and stylized while maintaining the verite style allowed by the F23.. You can read a lot into the eyes of Depp at that time when he is sitting in the theater. Mann allows this scene to breathe the most to give it consequence.
Christian Bale has the less glamorous role in the movie and, at times, the more difficult one since he has to be subtle. With a new found accent that separates him, the droll delivery he must employ in “Dark Knight” is gone for the most part but again Bale is so recognizable now that unless he supremely alters his appearance like Depp does in other roles, the impression of Bale, the persona, despite the fact that he tries to keep that at a minimum, still shines through. The character he plays (Purvis) is a man who must work the politics but also be hard hitting and stay true to himself despite moral or ethical conflicts. One of the intrinsic parts of the movie is when Purvis fully commits to his mission and guns down Babyface Nelson with gusto in the middle of the dark. This is one of those moments where the actual aesthetic of that low light with the F23 works. But that is because the camera is standing fairly still a certain distance away.
The other major player is actress Marion Cotillard who won the Oscar for “Le Vie En Rose”. As with a lot of female parts she has less to do, since most of the active action, is taken by the men. Her character only starts to have some cool stuff to do in the interrogation room towards the end. Her viciousness and repulsion at the men who are roughing her up got the audience applauding. Unfortunately that is the only place it is allowed to shine especially in this kind of boy’s movie set in this time period. Even in “Scarface”, Michelle Pffiefer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had much more to do.
Other interesting actors populate the screen, some for moments and others fleeting, but their inclusion shows the pedigree. Billy Crudup has the most screen time apart from the leads as J. Edgar Hoover in very much a thankless role. Despite this, the performance comes off fairly flat. Stephen Dorff has bad ass elements of one of Dillinger’s gang but besides a few one liners that are taken and heard off-the-cuff, he is not specifically highlighted in a deliberate way. Channing Tatum has about two minutes as Pretty Boy Floyd early in the picture as he is shot down at the opening of Bale’s introduction as Purvis. The interesting thing is that when you see him for the first time up close after he has been shot where he has no dialogue, he looks like Chris Pine. The credits are the only thing that proved me wrong. And towards the end, Leelee Sobieski shows up as Polly Hamilton with maybe one line. She worked with Kubrick on “Eyes Wide Shut” but again very small inclusion. Giovanni Ribisi as an outside consultant to Dillinger is the person with the most on-screen time with Depp in this regard although you could tell he only worked two days. But his impression is the most undeniable because he completely blends in. You feel that he is there in that time period.
That is one thing that this format and the approach Mann takes does. It places you in that time period however fleeting it is. You maybe get a little of the feel of what it was like for these outlaws when that was consider modern. That is the movie’s true strength along with Depp. Coming out of theater and looking up at the color of the sky, it is the same on the film. It is hard to capture what the naked eye sees and that is part of the experiment. With others big directors going either fully stylized (Tony Scott), fully digital (Robert Zemeckis) and beyond the realm of what might be possible (James Cameron), Michael Mann is one who is still bringing the real. And despite whether it works all the time, it is a cool artistic focus that will continue to evolve. Out of 5, I give “Public Enemies” a 3 1/2.