There are certain films that you see announced, subsequently chronicled in their making and then given trailers prior to release that, when you actually see them, they are completely and totally what you had expected to see from start to finish. Public Enemies is, and note this is not wholly negative, exactly what you would expect a John Dillinger biopic directed by Michael Mann to be.
The film is extremely well made, professionally told in terms of story and character, contains a host of excellent performances, not least Johnny Depp in the lead role, and entirely hits all the markers you would expect that it would. While that means that any expectations you have had for the movie are likely to be met, it does mean that nothing is exceeded.
The film follows John Dillinger (Depp) from a blistering opening of his breaking cohorts out of prison through to his eventual demise outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. In between we witness his bankrobbing ways, see his Robin Hood qualities played to the extreme and experience him falling in love with Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette and finally seeing his time pass as other forms of criminal begin to usurp his place. This is all juxtaposed with a team of agents from the then-burgeoning FBI, led by Billy Crudup’s J Edgar Hoover at the top and Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis on the ground, who are trying to catch Dillinger and his gang, along with the other loosely associated gangsters around during the era.
No doubt here that the two key players in the film, Depp playing Dillinger and Michael Mann behind the camera, are great at what they are doing. From interviews that Depp has given promoting the film, he seemed to identify with those Robin Hood qualities of Dillinger – robbing banks during a period when foreclosures and collapses were commonplace in the financial world – and the film does not skimp on portraying Dillinger not so much as anti-hero, but as purely a hero. The film does seem to lack a discernable villain, even if Crudup’s slimy take on Hoover comes close and Stephen Graham’s somewhat-garbled rat-a-tat accent as Baby Face Nelson provides the film with at least one unfeeling gangster.
The problem in portraying Dillinger in this way is that you don’t end up grasping the kind of depth that would be needed from a character like that. Depp plays him very much in hero mode, meaning that an uncomfortable feeling seems to dominate the majority of the film in which the audience is being urged to not only try and identify with this bank robber, but to like and support his actions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this irresponsible on the part of the portrayers, but this seems to lose the film some traction in trying to get the audience to work harder to understand why he is so attractive to them. Depp plays him with almost too much charisma, too much likeability that you completely forgive any actions he takes – the most notable scene for this portrayal is during the first bank heist we see in which Dillinger takes captive a young female clerk and a manager from the bank. While they are awaiting their getaway, Dillinger gives the young girl his coat to keep her warm in the finest tradition of the gentleman robber. The problem is that we just don’t get any sense of weight in those bank robbery scenes that what he is doing is wrong and that we should question why we are behind him.
The other fault of the film is that it never strays from the traditional problems which hit biopics. Mann has managed to make a really good biopic in the past with Ali which, although certainly not a revolution in biographical filmmaking, made the wise choice to focus on only a small part of Ali’s life. This film does that to an extent, but it perhaps attempts to provide a little too much of Dillinger’s life and may have been a more focused and probing work had it been broken in two, giving Mann and the writers a chance to explore Dillinger’s character a bit more and give a portrayal of the man which doesn’t stray into cliche or basic biography channel fact-spotting.
None of this though is to suggest that the film is bad. It is expertly made and contains, during a shoot out in the woods towards its conclusion, at least one astounding scene. That scene plays to many of Mann’s action strengths, cutting out all other noise beyond the blast of the guns and, as was the case in Collateral and in Heat, the scene is rendered incredibly compelling. The cinematography style of the film, overseen by long-time Mann collaborator Dante Spinotti, mixes grained and washed colours with digital video. Many have felt it to be too much of a conscious decision, hurting the overall experience by drawing attention to itself. I would probably agree with that on principal, but it never prevented me from being visually drawn in.
There are a host of very good scenes surrounding this and some nicely-judged supporting performances, most notably from Jason Clarke as Red Hamilton and from Crudup’s Hoover in a smaller role. Cotillard doesn’t really get enough to do but she and Depp forge a strong relationship and chemistry on screen which means the relationship doesn’t just feel shoehorned in.
Christian Bale, whose star seemed unassailably on the rise, is pretty meaningless in this, giving perfectly passable turn as Purvis but, in fairness, trying to do quite a lot with very little. Purvis, who leads the Chicago office’s chase of Dillinger, was surely a much more interesting man that is portrayed here but that isn’t just not explored, it’s not really even hinted at. That lack of a tangible conflict between Dillinger and Purvis does mean the film suffers somewhat in its central battle. When the two meet following the first capture of Dillinger, its hardly like watching De Niro and Pacino in Heat.
Public Enemies seems, on paper anyway, to be a great conceit and match for its director. Yet this feels decidely hollow, a well-made but episodic depiction of a man whose life was surely much more interesting, multi-faceted and singular than this film ever indicates.
MOD RATING: Watchable but hollow, big on the basic elements of expert storytelling, lacking anything beyond pure technique.
Anticipation for comic book adaptations come in very different forms. The Batman movies all suffer from a similar fate in that fans want darker every time, hence the widespread spurning given to Joel Schumacher’s Cyberpunk nightmares during the 1990s. Daredevil suffered a similar fate, although in both cases, little argument can be made for the actual quality of the adaptations, let alone their inability to tap into the desires that fans have of what they envisage for beloved characters. Sometimes, the criticism becomes slightly unfair. Witness the recent news that Fantastic Four is to be rebooted by Fox with a view to providing a darker vision of their super-family strife. The Fantastic Four movies are not great but, admit it, they capture the spirit of the comics very well indeed.
Watchmen is an entirely different beast. You could compare them to other Alan Moore adaptations and the treatment they had, but that doesn’t quite grasp the kind of no-win situation into which Zack Snyder plunged himself by taking on, and subsequently talking up, a film version of Moore’s most revered work. V for Vendetta inspires great love amongst Moore fans but that adaptation seemed doomed from the beginning given the presence in the directorial chair of James McTeigue, the perfect example of what Kevin Smith described as ‘failing upwards’ in Hollywood. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn’t Moore’s most revered but it is a brilliant, rollicking set of tales. It should have been easy to adapt but, beset by problems across the board, you can understand why that one fell to pieces. None though carry with them the stigma of adaptation that Watchmen has. It is an distinctly mixed desire amongst fans to see the film adapted anyway. It has often been described as unfilmable, not least by Moore himself, while the likes of Terry Gilliam (who was advised not to embark on the venture by Moore himself) and Paul Greengrass walked on past without managing to bring it to life. So, as this beast arrives, the question is raised as to whether Snyder managed to pull it off, and whether he should have tried at all.
The answer to both is a very tentative yes. Watchmen is some achievement, a linear and entertaining action movie gleaned from source material which never gives any concession to such narrative convention. You could never deny that Snyder has pulled off the adaptation, and for that he should be applauded. But he should not be lauded because, while this is undoubtedly something to see, nearly every problem that this film has offsets the positives and, on both sides of that coin, Snyder takes responsibility.
Snyder is undoubtedly a visual stylist, maybe even auteur, and his fingerprints are smeared on every scene. There are a great number of moments from the graphic novel which get lifted into the film wholesale, itself a visceral thrill for any fan watching. In doing so, he manages to include a number of the bigger themes that the book explores, not to mention the moments of humour that Moore often slips in, a welcome addition to what is a big, serious movie. The title sequence deserves a significant amount of praise, given that it manages to provide the alternative history of Moore’s United States with panache and skill without every feeling like important information is being shoehorned in; it’s a lesson for anyone taking on big, difficult adaptations and how to deal with the fact that five-hour movies don’t tend to sell. The other huge positive the movie has is Dr Manhattan, a brilliant CG/human creation which outstanding work from Billy Crudup, joining Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian in bringing the characters to life with verve and skill. Manhattan’s screen-incarnation is so well-judged and intelligently used, he is easily the most fully-realised and well understood adapted creation in Snyder’s universe.
But, for all the good, the bad and mistepping comes streaming through to match. The minor gripes first. The sex scene, itself used in a semi-comic context in the movie, is incredibly poorly filmed and badly judged by Snyder, coming across like the worst form of late-night, Channel 5 nonsense. Akerman is weak as Silk Spectre 2, an undemanding character which she manages to make completely unbelievable, especially in the S&M variation on the original costume which reaks of at-least partial sexism. Matthew Goode too, whilst relatively good in terms of look and attitude as Ozymandias, is slightly out of place and, although reportedly this was an acting choice, his accent is all over the shop.
The real problems though fall to Snyder himself. He is a director with great visual flair and an understanding of action quotients and slickness. However, his addiction to slo-mo fight scenes and, in this case, astonishing violence in given parts (the alley way and Rorschach’s turning point with a cleaver). Snyder seems far too interested in the slo-motion sequences, themselves extremely annoying and lacking in the kind of pace needed, and ends up fetishising the violence in truly disturbing fashion. It seems as though his history on 300, a far less illustrious project but equally strewn with heavy, slo-mo battles, was more indicative of his overall style rather than his adherence to Frank Miller’s work. Any concentration on the violence in Watchmen is to miss the point of the story, especially when he’s putting in the action sequences in slo-mo and taking up time which should be used to bring in other story parts (most notably the magazine vendor and kid reading comic which frame the story in the comic so brilliantly). It seems to me that Snyder was much more interested in amping up the violence and action scenes and producing a linear movie, rather than managing to balance the more difficult moments in Watchmen with those base elements.
As a director, he can undoubtedly make a film in which you are dazzled by the visuals and the gung-ho entertainment value. But it seems he does not have the ability to grasp wider emotional issues. For that reason, Watchmen doesn’t quite manage to ascend to greatness. But, for all the faults that strew the movie, I would argue that this is the absolute best that Snyder could ever have done and, therefore, he can be rewarded on a personal level. But I cannot help but wonder what a more versatile directorial talent would have made of it. Given all the history though, I think I can just be pleased that Snyder managed to adequately sidestep fucking up the greatest work of graphic fiction of all time.