Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is perhaps notable for being the least Mann-like film ever to arrive with the famously iconoclast director’s seal of approval. The content is still there: a study of men so subsumed by their own identity and ego they can’t but suffocate on it, and women who factor in more as plot points than living, breathing humans (then again, can anyone be a living, breathing human in Mann’s archly-detached world aiming to destroy any sense of human identity?) This time, the two subjects are the poster-boy for Great Depression era super-stardom and bad-boy decay, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the stoic, square-jawed Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the gumshoe sent to show Dillinger his maker. They’re quintessential males from the director whose name had gender on the mind before he could. But if the content is here, the style most certainly is not. And it’s not an over-exaggeration to say that Mann’s films are Mann’s style. So what does that leave Pubic Enemies with?
Okay, it’s not totally un-stylized, for this is Michael Mann after all. But Mann doesn’t insist upon his style and call attention to it as he does in his usual exercises in abstract color and psychotic editing. This is largely a restrained, realist affair, even to the point where Mann uses his style to create a sort-of hyper-realism in the form of Dante Spinotti’s at-times grueling HD digital camerawork. Spinotti captures the curious effect of home video more than a gritty, urban, textured story of men and their insecurities. The effect matches well to a certain depiction of John Dillinger (the “free-wheeling spool of chaos” depiction popularized by standard-bearer Bonnie and Clyde), lending the film a sort of in-the-trenches perspective that, especially because Mann is at his most unhinged in using this technique when Dillinger is on-screen, makes him out to be a chaotic, in-decipherable figure more maelstrom than human.
But that isn’t the depiction the film seems to be going for, which creates a dissonance between its visual element and its lead character. Depp is resolutely Depp here, which means archly detached; it’s the only performance he’s given in years that reminds of us how dangerous and depraved his clinical style can be when used to convey inhuman decay rather than twee insanity. Which is to say, the performance would have perfectly matched to Mann’s normally detached, cruel visual style all caught-up in superficial appearances and formalism at the expense of emotion. Mann captures this in his set-design and intricate framing, and in a few crackerjack bits of lethal cinematic hellfire, such as a shootout that plays out less like organized chaos than a battle between light flashes in the darkness distanced from human contact. Dillinger maintains a distance to a put-upon world he doesn’t belong in, and the scenes of him in public, even when Mann starts playing with celebrity imagery toward the end, capture this distance exquisitely.
But the home-video feels curiously out-of-touch, pushing us into Dillinger’s world and contrasting with Depp and the screenplay that want to keep us at a pointed distance. Unless, of course, what Mann was going for was something along the likes of “even with the home video that ought to personalize and humanize Dillinger, he’s still a cog in the machine who thinks turning the other way will break the machine, and it might, but only by breaking him”. That would be … esoteric, to say the least, even by Mann’s standards. And the film doesn’t quite earn it even if that was its intent. All it accomplishes is a sense of ugliness that’s less subversive and pointed than, well, just ugly. And it’s all the more curious when Mann himself has used digital video to much more effective results before (if nothing else, 2004’s Collateral is a masterpiece of chilly, clinical, pointedly over-produced mood precisely because of its digital video).
But this is only a quibble to those of us who expect great things from one of cinema’s greatest stylists. Around the edges, this is an almost deliriously well-constructed picture with a wise and nuanced depiction of a man who doesn’t care much for nuance. If for nothing else, the film’s script gets Dillinger right, and if for this reason it can’t truly be emotionally shattering, that’s only because Dillinger himself is so brittle and frail he can’t admit there’s nothing much left to shatter in the first place. He’s so busy being chased by the “law” in the form of Melvin Purvis and enjoying every second of it that all he can accrue joy from anymore is that chase. For Mann’s formal mistakes, this pen-and-paper portrayal of character – equal parts scripting and acting – is fascinating. If Dillinger can’t hold himself together, it’s because he’s so busy holding together the film.
In the end Public Enemies is all in its title. Public Enemies, as opposed to The Public Enemy to bear the name of a famously ferocious Cagney vehicle this film obviously owes a debt to. It implies a certain plurality. Yet none of the other commonly defined public enemies of the era has a major role. Instead, the enemies reflects Mann’s old mantra about the hunter and the hunted – in his world Purvis is as deranged and psychotically non-human and as much an enemy to a stable society as Dillinger could ever be. In a brilliant scene with Dillinger in a theater as an announcement to the audience members to “look to their left and look to their right” to see if Dillinger accompanies them, he boldly remains face-forward. This is despite knowing that this would call attention to his identity. He’s a rebel, through and through, sometimes arbitrarily, and as Mann shows, it all comes back to a tenuous ego, a desperate desire to be a lone wolf, a man unto himself. That Mann slowly but surely posits he’s just like other men, that he is just one of the “public enemies” and not the only one, is his masterstroke, a cruel and disquieting commentary on the ego of the human male in the 1930s, or in any other age.
There are two possible versions of Gangster Squad that work. In one, the film is a deliriously campy, loopy attempt to dive head first into the overblown world of 1940’s noir filmmaking, ala Dick Tracy. In the other, Gangster Squad is actually a movie and features things like characterization and ambition and narrative coherence and reason. I’d like to throw out the old critical standby of “Gangster Squad tries both and fails doubly”. But that would be wishful thinking. Gangster Squad doesn’t try much at all. Unfortunately, Ruben Fleischer’s film is mostly just a reminder that Ruben Fleischer, a comedy director by nature, does not know nearly anything of the visual skill required to actually direct an action/crime/thriller/whatsit. His work in previous efforts was entirely functional, fine enough for the script-driven genre of comedy, but something like Gangster Squad requires a little visual pizzaz and spice, something he is wholly incapable of providing.
Things go bad right from the start, with druggy, bored narration that can only work for signaling something clinical or giddily mocking, but, as the browned-out, insistent visuals accompanying the narration tell us, it’s neither: rather, it’s a ‘too cool for school” gangster pic entirely caught up in its own glossy depiction of the immoral and the depraved but totally uninterested in having any fun with this depravity. This is a deeply immoral film, but it doesn’t have the courage to be gloriously immoral. Instead, it wallows around in self-seriousness and feels profoundly weightless, and not in a bouncy way either. Had the film’s self-conscious style been backed up by anything resembling thoughtful style, then maybe we’d have another story. But instead, Fleischer just watched LA Confidential and The Untouchables in lieu of the actual 1940’s movies he wants us to think he watched, taking out anything resembling grit or dramatic integrity or dynamic filmmaking and replacing them with something that borders on self-parody. And what self-important self-parody too.
The film’s slickness is closer to tired plastic than slithering oil (and the sheen-y, over-produced digital cinematography lacking any of the grain and grit that gave personality to 40’s filmmaking doesn’t help either). The whole thing is crystal clear, but that’s the problem – there are no shadows for the film’s would-be devilish grins to hide within. It’s like a deeply earnest cover-version of a classic song with all the edges rounded off, and the worst kind too: the kind that doesn’t realize it’s totally not the bee’s knees. Everything is just so … visible, and visible and noir aren’t always good bedfellows. Any sense of demented energy is sapped clean from the film’s resolutely functional visual storytelling, downright depressing considering the precedence of diluted American German Expressionism in the ’40s film noirs this one wants to be.
And this isn’t even without mentioning how it fails as a regular film outside of its noir-baiting. Script-wise … where to begin. Again, there’s that nagging sense that this film was caught somewhere between challenging the film noir mold and proudly diving head first into it. What we end up with is a film that takes the plot beats of film noir but none of the cheery grandeur that kept them from suffocating on their own tiredness. At a more structural level, the film goes through the motions almost like it’s intending something subversive in constructing a consciously underdeveloped narrative. But it doesn’t have the smarts or the nimble chaos to earn this, and what could have been a post-structuralist noir critique or a loving embrace of noir just ends up being a stilted crime film that jerks from place to place without any rhyme or reason.
All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned the most confused thing of all: Sean Penn as the film’s villain Micky Cohen, who froths at the mouth like his translucent head is about to fill with a layer of red and explode. He goes all in, but the film doesn’t have the courage to follow through. It’s like placing a cartoon in something that thinks it’s a chamber drama. And this is the perfect metaphor for the whole film, torn between lurid kitsch and actual depth and running around in circles (there’s one moment so unsure of whether the film is falling over backward insisting that the heroes are becoming dangerous mercenaries with no sense of honor or whether it’s asking us “yep, cool huh?” with such astounding gracelessness that it registers less as a finished product than a sick joke). It’s a bad cartoon, a bad exercise in real-world depth, and bad at almost everything else in between. But it’s worst of all at being bad. Instead it’s just content for soulless mediocrity of the most shameful, and shameless, kind. It’s not even so bad the director decided to treat it like trash and cavort around the edges with the sheer anarchy of invention. But you know what they say about bad films? They just don’t make ’em like they used to.