The simplest way I can put it is that grainy handheld digital video and 1930s gangster period piece do not mesh. It's sadly ironic, because when Michael Mann made Collateral five years ago (which, by the way, is still one of my favorite movies of the decade and one of my favorite thrillers of all time) I was the world's biggest proponent of its gorgeous digital photography, which transformed nighttime Los Angeles into something golden, eerie, and ethereal. But in Public Enemies, which the trailers represented as a badass Great Depression-era Heat, every time the characters stepped into indoor lighting the movie took on the ugly, bruised look of the cheapest home video and the fourth wall came tumbling down, ejecting me with force back into the movie theater and the 21st century.
Michael Mann has always been a big believer in visual and aural authenticity. One of the things that impressed critics took note of in Heat (and which also stands here) was the completely accurate gunshot sound effects that scrapped Hollywood tradition for stark realism. But he defeats himself in Public Enemies, applying a vérité documentary style with ultra-modern HD video that screams "This is a movie made in the 2000s! You are not, I repeat, not in the 1930s!" at you for every second of screen time. I hated, yes, hated the way this movie looked. I'm not a "film only" snob, but digital ill serves certain scripts, especially if you aren't going to bother to light properly to mask the grain.
Getting past the cinematography, the narrative of Public Enemies is split between bank robber John Dillinger's relentless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover's man Melvin Purvis and a love story between Dillinger and a half-Native American girl named Billie Frechette. Neither fully works, especially not the love story, as the pair pretty much fall for each other out of sheer narrative obligation. They meet, John Dillinger tells her he's his girl within what feels like three minutes, she accepts, and the audience is left with a feeling of "what the...?!"
There's also this awkward line where John Dillinger tells Billie he finds her interesting for being exotic and "dark," when Marion Cotillard's skin color is quite clearly the exact same pale shade as Johnny Depp's. If you'll pardon an oblique analogy, it reminded me of the really uncomfortable moment in The Devil Wears Prada when rail-thin, ultra-hot Anne Hathaway laments to Meryl Streep that "I know I'm not skinny..." Sometimes, when a line clearly has no application to what's actually onscreen, screenwriter pride needs to be sacrificed to fix it. I'm sorry for dedicating a whole paragraph to one line, but it irked me.
Anyway, the bank robberies are exciting if nothing new in cinema, and some of the gunfights and pursuits between Dillinger's crew and the FBI (along with not one but two prison escapes) are actually pretty cool and do manage to feel like the Depression-era Heat we all craved for a few glorious moments. Ultimately it's hard to care though on account of the fact that Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis is given absolutely nothing to work with whatsoever: No personality, no non-expository dialogue, no backstory, no motivation, no interesting friends to talk to, fuckin' nothing. He's an absolute cipher and impossible to care about; I've seen cinematic waffle waitresses with three lines who had more personality.
Not surprisingly, the movie's limited salvation comes courtesy Johnny Depp, who plays the charming thief archetype with predictably entertaining zest. Scenes where he charms reporters from prison, taunts his enemies, and pulls daring crimes make you temporarily forget the film's substantial visual and story shortcomings, and if you're a big fan of the actor (and who isn't?) then Public Enemies is very nearly worth recommending just to experience the handful of great moments mired in the sap. But the flaws run deep and pervasive, and fifty years from now, while Heat will live on as a crime classic, Public Enemies will be long forgotten.
1 Star out of 5