So on the face of it Public Enemies should be a great Michael Mann film delivering his signature stylised action with some excellent cinematography and strong performances, even more so since it's taken from the book by Bryan Burrough entitled Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 to provide plenty of historical, accurate references and scripted by Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann and Ann Biderman.
However I have to say I was disappointed by the film on a number of levels and I do wonder if it was because I was led to expect too much.
Public Enemies is set in the crime filled times of 1930's Chicago and tells the story of how one of the most notorious criminals of the time, John Dillinger, is finally hunted down by the soon to be FBI. The story begins with John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, at the height of his fame, and it was a very public fame, he and his gang were robbing banks with such efficiency that they just couldn't be caught. Never touching people's own money, just the banks, they were almost free to roam as they pleased.
However J. Edgar Hoover is the man in charge of a group of Federal Agents who are bringing major criminals to justice, and he has a personal mission to see these gangsters jailed or dead. He appoints his best agent, Melvin Purvis, to the case who creates a task force to hunt down the gang through any means necessary.
The manhunt changes Purvis dramatically, and Dillinger's accomplices are slowly hunted down, captured, or killed, one by one. Meanwhile Dillinger has found something else other than a desire for stealing other people's money, love, and he too is beginning to think of change.
One of my biggest concerns about the film from the outset was that both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, playing Dillinger and Purvis respectively, would have come across as the same two actors playing their roles, as they often do in their films. Instead of becoming invested in the character and believing them you see the actor playing the role, sure enough you can become connected and emotionally involved with them, but you’re never far from seeing the actor.
However with Public Enemies I was wrong and I'm glad I was. Both actors play their roles well and do become their characters much more than you might expect, certainly more than I expected. I was especially fearful of how Johnny Depp would appear as I’m so much more used to him playing the pantomime, fantasy characters of late. Here though he’s very believable as Dillinger himself and he does a strong job of bringing the emotional side of the character to the fore.
The action sequences are the next thing that grabs your attention, and as you would expect for Michael Mann they are well choreographed and provide for some exhilarating moments. Actually that’s not entirely true, when they are happening at night you really are struggling to see the picture on the iTouch screen and follow what is happening, during a couple of sequences I just gave up trying to understand what was happening on screen.
I think that is where a part of the film was lost for me, because the combative relationship between the two leads, and the distaste that Purvis sometimes shows for what he and his men are doing was sometimes lost. Michael Mann’s action sequences aren’t just about the action, believe it or not there’s development through them, and that was lost in a couple of the night time sequences.
That did mean that story wise I was disappointed and after my viewing I felt it could have delved deeper into the characters and the situations they were in. Instead the film seems to more than happy to just wash over you and keep moving forward, apart from the shooting scenes and action sequences when the film came alive a little more.
I'm really not entirely sure why I felt like this and just can't put my finger on why, but it just didn't seem to get deep enough into either of the leads, their key relationships, or their changes as the man hunt continued, changes that are clearly happening but I didn’t feel come across strongly enough.
The disconnection may have been down to some of the difficulties I found trying to follow the darker scenes, but I'm not sure it's entirely to blame. I felt a disconnection from the characters and the story, and I felt that the film was simply overly long and focussing on the sequence of events rather than the emotional changes and relationships.
In fact later on in the film it began feeling like I was watching a similar sequence as I'd already seen. A chase, the man hunt gets close, there's a shoot out, and they move on. It just seemed to be in a different location with some different features.
On occasion I felt as though the scenes were disconnected from each other and each was there to demonstrate something about the character or hit a point about the story. I wonder if there is actually a much longer more coherent cut of this story that we’ll see on some future director’s cut?
This is the first film I've watched on the iTouch that I've been disappointed with the picture, and it looks to be down to the transfer. The film is very dark to watch anyway, but the darkness levels on the small screen were well below comfortable during the night time sequences and I ended up struggling to follow and understand what was happening. It began to affect my enjoyment of the film and following of the story. I even turned off all the lights, but the only effect this had was to make all the blacks appear misty greys and didn't allow me to see much more detail.
Once again, the standard iTouch stereo audio does provide enough range and depth to pull you into the film. However I did miss more directional and spatial sound with a home cinema while watching this film as you would expect some of the action sequences would really put you right in the centre of events with a digital 5.1 audio track.
Public Enemies was not a very good transfer for portable viewing, and I wonder what would have happened if I could have streamed it to watch on my large screen home cinema, would it still have been too dark, or would I have managed to lighten it up? Either way, the transfer for iTunes appeared far too dark on the iTouch, and since I have no capability of watching it any other way, I could not test if it was just the iTouch.
This did affect the viewing because during some of the scenes there are some changes to and connections with the characters, effectively I was missing sections of the film. Still, I didn’t feel that the film flowed well and sometimes I felt as though I was being pulled from scene to scene, scenes which sometimes didn’t connect well and felt somewhat contrived.
Interestingly though you could still tell it was a Michael Mann film and it carried all the style of his previous. It did feel a little like Heat in the thirties.