Public Enemies

08/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tommy Gun, you ain't happy less you got one...

There is a moment in almost every Michael Mann film when the camera lingers just over the shoulder of one of our protagonists, filling the screen with the back of their head and maybe a bit of ear as it follows Mann's clockwork men mechanically pursuing their work. The camera follows them as if it is the unseen and largely unquantifiable force or weight driving them. This signature shot nicely sums up Mann's body of work: the thoroughly detailed and somewhat detached procedural of men at work and the existential drift that moves them on either side of the thin line between law and crime. This has produced results both sublime -- The Insider -- and ludicrously awful -- Miami Vice -- so it was with some trepidation that I approached his latest, Public Enemies, an ambitious, but flawed epic of the Golden Age of American crime.

Shot all in HD Cam, Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti have created a movie that looks fantastic, as the light-weight of this new technology allows for all those unseen forces to become even more fluid and omnipresent, creating a hyper-real canvas of extreme close-ups and a muted palette of browns and blacks that is both ugly and gorgeous, a fitting look for the film's depression era setting. Of course, it is really Johnny Depp's movie, whose performance as John Dillinger eclipses almost everything else in its orbit, and remains the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The movie is shot with technical brilliance, but it is really only Depp that manages to captivate or engage. The film is littered with a who's who of character actors who crop up again and again without much to do or say. You have Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Graham, Leelee Sobieski, That Dude from Lord of the Rings, Shawn Hatosy, Stephen Lang, Rory Cochrane, Billy Crudup, Lili Taylor, Channing Tatum, Stephen Dorff, Jason Clarke, and probably a dozen other people you may remember from such films and tv shows as ____. They're all quite good, they just don't really matter, drifting in and out of the movie or being gunned down without much rhyme or reason. Christian Bale is mostly a zero as the straight-laced G-man, Melvin Purvis, who pursues Dillinger. However, I should give Marion Cotillard her props as a non-prostitute, female in this sausage party of a movie. She does great work in a role that I nonetheless have the sneaking suspicion was thrown in to attract skeptical girlfriends on a Friday night.

The problem with Public Enemies is that much like the utterly listless American Gangster, it wants so badly to be the next great American crime epic, the next Bonnie & Clyde, the next Goodfellas, or even the next Heat for that matter. It aspires to be a grand statement on crime, celebrity, and the country that worships them, but it lacks any coherent idea of what it really wants to say. To be sure, it's much better than American Gangster, but watching Public Enemies basically left me with two thoughts. The first being that even when compared with hardcore sociopaths like Baby Face Nelson and Frank Nitti, the FBI -- or in this era, just the "BI" -- are far more evil, as they will gladly torture, kill, or destroy anything that gets in the way of expanding the powers of a small group of unelected, pseudo-fascists, or as Crudup's J. Edgar says, "a modern law enforcement agency made up of the best sort of young men," you know, WASPs without conscience. The second thought the film left me pondering was, why on Earth did we ever stop using Tommy guns? Because, man they look like they get the job done.

Ultimately, when taken as a whole, Public Enemies is a film not quite as good as its best moments. However, its best moments are really quite good. The bank heists, jail breaks, and one amazing shoot-out with the feds in the Wisconsin woods are thrilling and might be worth the price of admission, but I found that the movie was most inspired in its little throwaway moments, including one scene near the end where Depp asks a group of men the score to a baseball game, I'll spare you the set up, but it actually is worth the ticket price. There are also two really great meta-moment, scenes of Depp/Dillinger watching and seeing himself in the movies. It is here where the movie breaks out of itself and shows glimpses of the greatness it aspires to, although fans of history will already know how one of those trips to the movies ended.