Film: Michael Mann: Public Enemies (2009)

I don’t want to slip into wanton Mann-bashing.  He’s responsible for some giddily elegant stuff in the past – the confrontation between Christopher Plummer and Gina Gershon in The Insider (1999), Daniel Day-Lewis’ ghost-cat sprint through the forest in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Val Kilmer’s gut-wrenching departure from Heat (1995) – and even when his films momentarily overdose on melodrama or Mann’s frequently hamfisted dialogue (perhaps De Niro and Pacino were never meant to share a screen), he compensates with scenes of extraordinarily disorienting violence, rarely bloody but appropriately sudden, and bat-out-of-hell loud.  All of which he shoots with a borderline poetic finesse – less in regard to meaning or substance, but with a keen sense of character and environment – that rises like a soft glowing mist above the grit and grain of his vulgar stories.  But that’s in the past.

By now, it may be that Michael Mann has honed his generic niche – the dueling professionals, generally cop versus criminal – ad glossy absurdum; I’m not certain there’s (a) anything more he has to say about it, or (b) IS anything more to say.  Two men of opposing moral directives pursuing each other through the night has some shiny, vague psychological overtones, having to do with obsession, responsibility, and a blindingly blunt masculinity, but to my mind Mann plumbed the hell out of them in Heat and has merely repeated a few since.  And the few times he’s strayed from the dichotomy into the single man in dogged pursuit (Ali (2001)), or the two men in obsessive tandem (The Insider), I suspect Mann sought a great deal more to be mined on a human level rather than the genre-bidden abstract, and I’d argue he’s never made a film more personal, more befittingly neurotic, than The Insider.

So it’s not a great big shock, following the emotional blandness of Ali or the strident simplicity of Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006), that Public Enemies should be so dull on the craft and substance fronts, but it’s disappointing anyway.  Good directors can be forgiven their chaff for their fine strudels, and while never a full-fledged artist, Michael Mann has been among the most seamless of modern American artisans.  But Enemies is a mess.  The basic problems – lack of focused, unique character development, the decidedly HD look of its HD look – could have easily been overlooked (as they always can) if the film had strived for, or stumbled across and ran with, something grander than its parts, but nowhere in Enemies is there the impression that Mann feels anything for this film.  His sense of John Dillinger and company is spectacularly generic, and he illustrates their escapades with a detached speed unwarranted by the story or performances.  Mann seems unusually committed to injecting a briskness into the pace of the film, but his script, which he cowrote, contains every scene demanded by genre expectations; there is little he could do in the editing to make Enemies feel more dynamic, or less clichéd, than any Scarface (1983) or The Untouchables (1987).

On that note, the comparison to De Palma is a-crying-shame fitting, because until recently Mann had somehow evaded the clumsy directness that De Palma can’t transcend.  No amount of technical playfulness can salvage a cheesy script riddled with pop-psychological melodrama, and there’s nothing purely cinematic about employing every Hitchcockian maneuver in the book at the expense of thought or honest emotional complexity.  De Palma has traded of late his self-conscious visual virtuosity for an overwrought faux-documentary style, owing nothing to the way human beings spontaneously discover imagery.  He only wants to suggest unmediated photography to the extent that it sells immediacy, in effect playing off the kind of visual expectations his earlier films endorsed.  Mann has taken the same path.  If films like Manhunter (1986) feel outright dated at this point, composed as it is of unwavering static frames and thick, colorful compositions, there’s something cheaper about his latter-day handheld approach, full of close-ups and dizzying motion.  It doesn’t have to feel cheap, but Mann doesn’t employ it symbiotically with his stories anymore, as in The Insider.  He just uses it, as though the style lends intrinsic weight or depth.  It does not.

Mann and De Palma share another trait, this one more disturbing: they both fetishize the hell out of violence.  De Palma tends to be grotesque about it, slathering the screen with swatches of hideous brutality – the Vietnamese girl’s exit from Casualties of War (1989), for example, or the mind-numbingly horrifying – and, to my taste, utterly tasteless – decapitation of the American soldier in Redacted (2007).  He treats cinema like a baton, a blunt club with the capacity to crack skulls wide open.  He’s not wrong.  He just lacks the taste or the moral judgment not to use movies like that, as a wife beater lacks the foresight to engage in discussion instead of a closed fist.  The bigger problem is that De Palma’s violence is tinged with pretentions of sincerity, as if his tactless handling wields effective, focused force.  Swinging too hard sends the bat right out of the batter’s hands.

Mann, on the other hand, and to his credit, is more interested in violence as behavior.  Its effects are substantially less important to him than the godawful aggression enacted in the moment – nothing stands out quite so much as the deafening boom of automatic weapons on a wide Mann street, as cops and criminals duke it out from behind their cars.  A few die.  Some are maimed.  And in the best of his work – the post-bank robbery shootout in Heat, copied almost verbatim but without the pathos in Enemies – this content falls neatly under Mann’s gracefulness as a filmmaker, as does the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998) for Spielberg, or the chilling executions in Zodiac (2007) for Fincher.  In these sequences, violence as human behavior rises above the pop miasma around it, for brief moments illuminating the decisive behavioral extremes human beings can reach, reason aside.

I’ll take a moment now to acknowledge how little I’ve said so far about Public Enemies.  It’s because Michael Mann is a thoughtful, engaging filmmaker, and commands respect for the gracenotes in his films that separate them from the work of less deliberate directors.  Here, he displays so little of his gifts for craftsmanship (his frequent cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, embraces a digital look that smacks debilitatingly of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves; HD technology is now light years past 1996) or for the quality of story and character development on which he’s built his feature reputation.  It’s not hard to see what, thematically, appealed to Mann to approach this stuff in the first place – and Johnny Depp is a reliably interesting performer, if not always best suited to drama – but this is beneath him.  Which makes me wonder whether Mann ever had a ton on his mind to begin with, and has simply stumbled once or twice across projects that elicited his absolute best.  As a conscious filmmaker, the only consistency is his need to energize the screen with kineticism and wit, both of which are on minimal display in the indifferent Enemies.

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