2 DISC SPECIAL EDITION
Film Year: 2009
Film Length: 2 hours 20 mins
Genre: Gangster Crime Drama/1930s Period Drama
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
BD Resolution: 1080p
BD Video Codec: VC-1 (@ an average 25 mbps)
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 3.5 mbps, going up over 5 mbps in the shootouts)
French DTS 5.1
Spanish DTS 5.1
English DVS 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Film Rating: R (Gangster Violence, Cop Violence, Language, Brief Sensuality)
Release Date: December 8, 2009
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff and Stephen Lang
Based on the Book by: Bryan Burrough
Screenplay by: Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman
Directed by: Michael Mann
Film Rating: 2 ½/5
Right off the bat, I’ll first say the obvious: Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s latest production, a period gangster drama about the exploits of bank robber John Dillinger in the 1930s, and the efforts of G-man Melvin Purvis to put him away. But then I’m going to ask HTF readers to bear with me here. This will be a longer review than normal, simply because I’m a fan of Michael Mann’s work, going all the way back to the early 1980s, and digesting this film means unraveling a lot of material. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to appreciate this film without understanding it in the greater context of Mann’s filmography, both in terms of where it succeeds and where it does not succeed.
There is a common story thread that runs through the various movies and television shows produced and directed by Michael Mann. He usually focuses on a driven individual who lives by a specific code trying to make his way. It’s a butch, insular, tough-guy view of the world, and the usual conclusion is that the individual is eventually undone when he breaks his own rules. In one of his earliest films, Thief, the focus was on James Caan as an independent safecracker whose life is ultimately wrecked when he falls into the orbit of gangster Robert Prosky. In the television series Miami Vice, his focus was on the detective duo of Crockett and Tubbs (usually Crockett) or on their more driven and taciturn Lieutenant, Martin Castillo (as expertly played by Edward James Olmos), and how the slightest deviation from their beliefs and practices would usually result in people being hurt or killed. In the television series Crime Story, Mann began to split this focus, giving the viewers two individuals with diametrically opposed goals: the honest but brutal cop Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) versus the vicious but honorable rising star hood Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). Ray Luca is given to fits of crazed violence, but even he operates by a code of personal honor – and he both understands and agrees when his crime buddy Paulie turns on him after he attacks Paulie’s girlfriend. (He even tells a surprised Paulie in court, “You did what you had to do. I was wrong. I hope you can forgive me.”) In Manhunter, Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, Mann simplified the elements of that story down to Will Graham’s driven pursuit of the Tooth Fairy Killer, albeit with some additional screen time given to the villain. In the film Heat, Mann actually fleshed out his opposing individuals from Crime Story, and gave them a surprising amount of substance. (This was certainly helped by the cast of that film, particularly Robert DeNiro as the ostensible “bad guy.”) But the story, even in Heat, is still the same one. DeNiro’s Neil McCauley has a specific discipline of walking away from everything “in thirty seconds flat if you see the heat coming around the corner” and he is lost when he strays from that discipline.
At this point, the reader is likely wondering what the heck all this has to do with Public Enemies. My answer is that we’re looking at the same basic story, transposed to the 1930s. What we have here is a replay of the same dynamics of both Crime Story and Heat, only this time with Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Purvis. Both men are surrounded by their crews of either cops or criminals, including some familiar faces from Mann’s earlier work. (Stephen Lang, from Crime Story, Manhunter and Band of the Hand, does an effective cameo as Castillo-like Texas lawman Charles Winstead. James Russo, who had major guest roles on both Miami Vice and Crime Story, pops up in a cameo in the very opening of the film as an older convict who breaks out of jail with Dillinger. Russo’s cameo, by the way, is another shocking reminder of time passing – it’s amazing to realize this is the same man who played Mikey Tandino in Beverly Hills Cop back in the day.) Just as Neil McCauley was undone by his attachment to Edie in Heat, here John Dillinger is undone by his attachment to Billie Frechette. Just as McCauley’s crew is undone by the out-of-control Waingro, Dillinger’s crew is undone by various wild partners, most especially the certifiable Baby Face Nelson (played with a scary intensity by Stephen Graham). The shootouts at the various robberies and ambushes are openly reminiscent of identical situations in Heat, only played out in 1930s wardrobe with tommy guns rather than modern artillery. Dillinger is even given dialogue directly from earlier Mann shows, when, like McCauley, he tells a bank robbery victim, “Put your money away, I don’t want your money, I just want what’s in the vault” and when, like Ray Luca, he tells Billie “I’m too fast, too tough and too smart for them to catch me.” The truth about Dillinger’s exploits is bent a little here to accommodate Mann’s themes, and the chronology has been rearranged a bit, all for artistic license. (This includes the invention of a meeting between Dillinger and Purvis in prison, to create something like the Pacino/DeNiro encounter in Heat.) And all of this would be fine, except that it just doesn’t really come together.
While the film starts out in a promising way, with Dillinger’s crew breaking in and out of prison to get their buddies, it seems to lose steam by halfway through, and winds up as a series of shootouts that look beautiful and period-accurate, but don’t carry any dramatic weight. Unlike Heat, Mann has not given us any real insight into who these people are, or why we should care what is happening. We never really understand why Dillinger and Billie care for each other, except that Mann tells us that they do. We never really understand who Dillinger is or why he does what he does, aside from a line here and there about his family and a couple of scenes of initial intimacy between the lovers. Johnny Depp’s performance is one of intense focus, but without any depth behind it – his Dillinger remains a cipher up to the end. Christian Bale is given even less material to play, aside from a growing disgust at the extreme methods Purvis must use to find and flush out Dillinger. Bale’s performance is a portrait of Purvis’s mannerisms and dialect, but at the end of the day, we still have no idea who Purvis is. We only know that from Mann’s perspective, Purvis does not have the single-minded focus of a Dillinger or a Winstead, and that in the end, Mann sees this as making him a little less of a man than the company he keeps.
As a gangster film and a period drama, the film certainly brings the 1930s to vivid life. The location work and the photography have many beautiful and detailed moments. At the same time, there are some picture and sound issues that may detract from viewers’ complete enjoyment here. The performances here are solid, but again, there’s no depth here to sustain the viewer for the length of the movie. And the story itself simply doesn’t have enough material to keep things interesting throughout. And yet, it’s still an entertaining film with some great set pieces. I recommend the disc as a rental for fans of Michael Mann’s filmography. I’m not sure what to say to fans of Johnny Depp or Christian Bale. Yes, they’re in the movie, but I can’t say that this is a performance from either of them that will be remembered in another year’s time. Even Marion Cotillard has very little to work with here. The best performances I see here come from Stephen Lang, Stephen Graham and Billy Crudup as a decidedly nerdy J. Edgar Hoover. I’ll be curious to see how readers here react to the film. For myself, it is not a bad film (and not the really bad film I was told about last summer when it premiered in theaters) but it is not a great film either. Given the expectations I tend to have for Michael Mann’s films, I have to rank this one as a disappointment.
Public Enemies will be released this week both on standard DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray release is a 2-disc affair, with the first disc containing a high definition transfer of the film with some special features, and the second disc containing a digital copy.
VIDEO QUALITY 3/5
Public Enemies is presented in a 1080p VC-1 2.40:1 transfer that is wildly variable, but I don’t fault the transfer for this issue. It’s the source elements that are creating the instability here. The film was mostly shot on HD cameras, although I believe there is also some filmed material as well. (I noted a camera loader in the credits, which would not be present on a completely high definition shoot.) Many scenes show a tremendous amount of high definition detail, in terms of facial stubble, wardrobe threads and period location detail. Mann’s trademark vehicle reflection shots have a greater level of detail in the reflections than I remember seeing in the reflected lights on the sides and hoods of cars in Miami Vice. And yet, there are also some moments of noise and instability in the image. The nighttime shootout at Little Bohemia in particular is plagued with some really strange issues. Some shots of Johnny Depp running through the woods and hiding behind a tree are buzzing with white noise. A shot in the same sequence of Christian Bale confronting Graham’s Baby Face Nelson in a field is so awash in noise that it’s hard to understand how the shot was considered usable. But I don’t think that this is due to a bad HD transfer – I think it’s what the makers of this Blu-ray had to work with, and they did the best job with it that they could. I should note that I am watching the film on a 40” Sony XBR2 HDTV. If anyone is watching the film on a larger monitor and is having issues, please post them on this thread.
AUDIO QUALITY 2 ½/5
Public Enemies is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English, along with standard DTS 5.1 mixes in French and Spanish and a Descriptive Service in English. The sound mix is as perplexing as the visual transfer, only here we have issues that could have been addressed. Essentially, there’s a lot of areas where the dialogue is simply too difficult to understand, either because of accent and dialect, or because it’s being mumbled. On multiple occasions, I was forced to run the movie back and turn on the subtitles to understand what people, particularly Johnny Depp, were saying. At the same time, the music comes through loud and clear in the surround channels. The multiple shootouts in the film go up and down in terms of volume and intensity. Some moments are extremely loud with full subwoofer support (taking the bitrate easily over 5 mbps) and other moments are inexplicably quieter, with the gunshots sounding much smaller. I would recommend having a volume control next to you while watching the film, as you may need to crank it up to hear what people are saying, and then crank it down when the music or the gunplay suddenly explodes through your home theater.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3/5
The Blu-Ray presentation of Public Enemies comes with a fair amount of special features. The film itself is accompanied by a scene-specific commentary by Michael Mann, along with some PIP and D-Box functionality, as well as several HD previews. There’s also about an hour of featurettes on the movie, and a gangster movie trivia game, as well as the usual BD-Live connectivity. And there’s the second disc with the digital copy. There are many interesting observations made here, but it’s a shame that they don’t go very deep.
As a general rule with the various featurettes here, I need to warn the reader to watch the movie BEFORE watching any of them, as there are spoilers all over the place. On the other hand, if you’re already familiar with the history of John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, you’ll likely already know this stuff, so it just depends on how much you’re bringing to the movie.
When the Blu-ray is initially put in the player, a series of previews plays before you get to the main menu. I noted that this alternates between two trios. The first trio starts with a standard definition preview of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games on NBC, followed by a 720p theatrical trailer for Inglourious Basterds and a general Universal Blu-ray trailer. The second trio has HD trailers for 9, A Perfect Getaway and Smokin’ Aces: Assassins’ Ball.
Commentary with Michael Mann – Michael Mann’s scene-specfic commentary covers pretty much everything you can imagine, from the research he did with the cast on the various real-life gangsters and G-men portrayed in the movie, to the filming at the real locations, to the places where he admits he took artistic license and adjusted his version of the real events for this film.
U-Control – While watching the movie, you can access a series of PIP featurettes that include vintage newsreels, real footage and photos of the various characters, and interviews with Michael Mann, author Bryan Burrough and the cast about the film and the people in it. There’s a timeline function that goes with this, which allows you to skip ahead to the next PIP section rather than wait for it to come up. The one difficulty I had here is that the volume on the PIP material was drowned out by the movie playing behind it. I believe this to be a matter of needing to reset the PIP volume in the setup menu, but I haven’t had a chance to try adjusting this yet.
Larger than Life: Adversaries (1080i, 10:19) – This brief featurette discusses the perspective of Michael Mann and the cast on the real John Dillinger and his associates, as well as the real Melvin Purvis and the formation of the FBI. The usual footage from the movie and on-set video is intercut with interviews and some vintage footage and photos from the 1930s.
Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies (1080i, 20:32) – This 20 minute featurette really is more of a general production featurette, with the various players complimenting Mann on his thoroughness and attention to detail. One interesting part of this has to do with Mann’s use of former bank robber Jerry Scalise as a technical advisor and a brief look at a mock bank robbery staged by the cast as part of their rehearsal process. (I would have been very interested to see the full tape of this robbery…)
Last of the Legendary Outlaws (1080i, 8:44) – This featurette covers Dillinger and his crew a little more closely, as discussed by Bryan Burrough and the cast members, including Johnny Depp. Dillinger is discussed as being something like the last cowboy villain, having picked up where 19th century bank robbers left off before the larger crime syndicates took over.
On Dillinger’s Trail: The Real Locations (1080i, 9:48) – This featurette focuses on the various real locations used in the film, including the Crown Point jail Dillinger busted out of using only a wooden replica of a gun, and the Little Bohemia inn. Some video footage is shown of Crown Point before the production crew refurbished it – it was literally a demolished interior that had to be reconstructed from the photos and movies of the original setup.
Criminal Technology (1080i, 9:39) – This featurette goes over the vehicles and weapons used by Dillinger and his gang in the movie, and shows the intense work required by Stephen Lang to execute some difficult maneuvers, including reloading and firing a vintage shotgun while performing a full body roll.
Gangster Movie Challenge – This is an onscreen multiple-choice quiz about trivia from this film as well as American Gangster, Casino, Carlito’s Way and Scarface. The current film gets two rounds of ten questions, while the older films get one round of ten questions each. Answer enough questions correctly, and you move up in rank within the “family.” I only got as far as “Underboss”, but then I don’t know a lot of the more arcane trivia lore from Carlito’s Way or American Gangster. On the other hand, I aced most of the Scarface questions…
BD-Live - The more general BD-Live screen is accessible via the menu, which makes various online materials available, including tickers, trailers and special events.
D-Box – This Blu-ray is enabled with D-Box Motion for viewers who have this capability in their home theater.
On Disc 2:
Digital Copy - A digital copy of the film can be loaded on to your computer or portable device.
IN THE END...
Public Enemies is a frustrating film for me. There’s a great idea for a movie here, albeit one that Michael Mann has made several times before. But it just never gels into a great movie this time around. There’s some great period detail, and at times the film is beautiful to watch. But between the intermittent picture quality (which again is not a matter of the transfer here), the variable sound levels, and the film’s own inherent flaws, it’s hard to recommend past a rental for fans of Michael Mann’s work.
December 6, 2009.