How would you choose to make a period piece feel exciting today? Would you: a. find ways to connect your period's themes to today's issues, b. give your story an exciting, modern feel without going into full anachronism, or c. use a lot of shaky cam-style modern filmmaking techniques that have nothing to do with your subject matter and are frankly kind of distracting? If you chose c, then guess what? Public Enemies is for you.
Set way back in the 1930s, Public Enemies is about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a badass bank robber who got himself listed as the FBI's Public Enemy Number 1. Unlike some of those nicer bank robbers in movies, Dillinger and his band of merry men had no qualms about shooting a few people along the way, making Bonnie and Clyde look like a couple on a picnic. Meanwhile, FBI superagent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), first seen gunning down another notorious gangster, is sent to hunt him down. So to recap, we've got Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, two of the most exciting actors today, plus Michael Mann (of Heat and Manhunter fame) directing. How could this be boring?
Hard to believe I know, but Public Enemies still somehow made its 2 hour 20 minute running time feel around twice as long. So what went wrong? Let me count the ways. First off, the movie repeatedly tells us of other gangsters like Baby Face Nelson, yet at no point in the movie could I tell you who anyone was. I don't even mean I didn't catch names - I mean I had absolutely no idea who anyone was outside of the three main characters (and J. Edgar Hoover, I guess). How can I care about the half the movie spent catching or killing these gangsters if I didn't remember seeing them onscreen ten minutes earlier?
It's possible I just wasn't paying enough attention, but I'll give you two other reasons for why this happened. The first - cinematography. This movie is really, really dark. Not dark tonally. I mean like I legitimately couldn't see their faces a lot of the time. What purpose this served, I couldn't tell you. But the second is a general lack of concern for character. As with any historic recreation, this movie seems so imprisoned by all the fancy costumes and historical accuracies that it loses the reason it was made - to tell a good story.
That lack of focus on character affects those three main characters I could recognize as well. I'd never say anything against Johnny Depp's performance as Dillinger, since he makes the part come alive as he does all of his roles. But if you saw the trailer thinking this would be a fun part for him, think again. Most of the time his Dillinger is a quieter, lonelier gangster, the opposite of his public persona. May be true, but that doesn't make it exciting.
He's a giant barrel of laughs compared to Bale's Purvis, who's the Company Man through and through, never letting you latch onto the hope of a Javert-like personal vendetta. He's got no stake in his case, so I had no stake in him. The best of the three is Marion Cotillard as Dillinger's girl Billie, who brings so much life into her part that the movie gets ten times more interesting whenever she's onscreen. Sadly, that's for far too little time.
Which brings me back to my original point, of what is given emphasis if not character, and that's style. There's handheld camera, jarring close-ups, and fast cutting that all serve to put you on edge while watching. But why? This isn't a Bourne movie where the cutting matches the car crashes. The only real accomplishment of all that is to take you out of the world presented onscreen. It doesn't match the movie, and it often makes it more confusing to figure out what's going on. So if you like awkward shots of nameless men being killed, enjoy. For everyone else, it's a long two and a half hours.