Too often, we as viewers fall into filmic ruts. We convince ourselves that our understanding of a particular topic, character or time period has been perfected; questioning such concepts would be blasphemy, or at the very least uninteresting. Collectively, we must be shocked out of such beliefs. With Public Enemies, director Michael Mann has taken everything we thought we knew about the gangster film, deconstructed it, and put it back together into something wholly different and occasionally successful.
Johnny Depp slips into the bad boy role of bank robber John Dillinger. An opening title card informs us that he was enjoying the golden age of bank robbing, though this is hardly a heist film. There is some talk of a big “score” early on, but instead of any major planning going into the robberies, Dillinger and his partners rob as often as needed to pay the bills. The film plays more like a biopic than anything else, but that doesn’t mean it is wholly impotent in the shoot ‘em up department.
After last summer’s The Dark Knight received praise from all critical outlets, the citation that seemed to come up most often as a creative influence was Mr. Mann’s 1995 film Heat. The only thing the two films seemed to share was a violent acuity, the ability to nimbly bounce between any man’s ability to invoke pain on bystanders while evoking compassion in the viewer. Not a small feat on either account, but it seems that the elder director is back to school us once again on the importance of immediacy in an action film. What makes Depp’s Dillinger so foreboding is not his physical prowess or his intellectual superiority, it is his ability to use the tools at his disposal at any given moments to get precisely what he needs from people.
In one of Public Enemies most brilliant sequences, Dillinger stages a prison escape that is ingenious only by virtue of its simplicity. With each step that he takes, Mr. Depp becomes more and more fierce, slowly working his way from guard to guard, from door to door, until freedom is his. The scene occurs mostly in a single take, which impels us to become submerged in this moment. Privy to the act, are we not just as guilty?
Now seems like a good point to bring up Mr. Mann’s insistence on shooting _Enemies _on HD video instead of film. This is the third consecutive film that he has shot on video. It still feels like a learning experience for Mann and company, but one for which future generations of filmmakers will benefit. The immediacy that I spoke of earlier permeates the screen in three dimensions. To its core, the image on screen is unpredictable. Feeling almost like a reality TV show at points, we are stimulated on a level that we normally ignore while watching a film.
During one of the film’s most violent fits, this visual style plays an incredible role. After holing up in a cabin in the woods, a gun fight erupts between the FBI and the gangsters within, resulting in a late night chase through the woods. Under dark cover, the fluid camera comes along for the ride. This almost feels like a period version of “Cops” _but plays as less of a gimmick. Mr. Mann is offering a new way to look at well trodden ground. It seems that ever since _The G__odfather: Part II, in which cinematographer Gordon Willis gave early twentieth century Italy and New York a gold sheen, we have been led to believe that olden times necessitate an olden feel which is somehow defined cinematically by a clean, classical image. Even if you don’t think this, we have grown accustomed to it as a film culture. Thank goodness for renegades like Michael Mann who try to shock us out of such silly dispositions.
Ed. Note: I didn’t mention Christian Bale’s performance in this article because anyone could have played his part (kind of like in Terminator: Salvation, snap). Marion Cotillard is wonderful, but there’s only so much I can write about in one post. Leave added thoughts in the comments.