Public Enemies looked like a serious return to form for Michael Mann, after the clunker that was Miami Vice. I will start by saying that I really like Mann’s films. He builds tension and atmosphere like very few other directors and his attention to detail is insane. I also love the way his films blur the line between the heroes and villains – this was used to brilliant effect in Heat and this film seemed like a great opportunity to revisit that idea.
But Mann has a few annoying trademarks that are all over this film: casting a gang of men who all look a bit similar, leading to viewer confusion, muttered dialogue and weak female parts. Johnny Depp, playing Dillinger, and Stephen Dorff as gang member Homer Van Meter, have the same Thirties haircut and wear virtually identical clothes which meant that particularly in night-time scenes I couldn’t tell which was which. Depp throws away half his decent lines by speaking in a low drawl that even a cough would drown out. And the less said about Marion Cotillard’s underwritten part as Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie the better…
The main problems, however, with this film are that it’s too long and you don’t really care about any of the people in it. I remember being glued to The Untouchables when I first saw it and it’s still a gripping, entertaining film with great characters. But here I didn’t care what happened to the feckless Dillinger, let alone cold G-man Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale. I started getting bored about three quarters way through and by the time the black screen came up at the end I was thinking about which train to take home.
The impressive cast does its best with the material but the script manages to contain a lot of action and dialogue without getting under the skin of any of the people in it and ultimately lacks heart. The only person you’ll remember afterwards is the amazing Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson, who provides us with one of the only truly great set pieces when he is introduced and storms psychotically through the rest of the film. If only the rest of the film had been as memorable!