It has been many years since Michael Mann took over the mantle of Hollywood's foremost crime fantasy storyteller. His films have always been fascinated with crime and the people who commit it - and despite the push for an edgier technology in his camerawork, they remain romanticized versions of themselves. Moving to 1930s Americana seems to give Mann a shot in the arm while at the same time sedating him.
This story of Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his ongoing fight for survival against government agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is crazily uneven and completely at odd with itself in parts. While Mann's penchant for romanticizing crime is intact, the film is authentic in all its details. The fall of John Dillinger and the rise of what would be known as the FBI is chronicled with enough pizzazz, but the rise of Dillinger is never shown - making empty husks of so many characters that seem to hover around him.
Part of the problem of course is how Mann has gone overboard and cast almost every role with a famous face. You expect some weight to these characters being as they are played by famous people, but then he goes ahead and offs these people with alarming precision. That has no impact on us - we never saw these people in their heyday, never realized what made them what they are. These are random criminals dying, and I just happen to know which actor that is.
The film focuses on the final years of Dillinger's life, and the mad spiral his life had come to. This was a time when the bank robber was cheered in cinema halls, thought to be a modern day Robin Hood by many, and was elusive yet completely flamboyant in his robberies. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) tries to bring him to justice and establish the rules with which America plays even now, with the help of his man Purvis.
Based on the book by Bryan Burroughs, the film tries to pepper its main story with a lot of what influenced the outcomes, like the mob syndicate and their increasing disenfranchisement of Dillinger, though Mann ensures we do not stray our attention too far away from Depp and Bale. Bale's dour, serious persona is what the role needed, though time would tell if he needed this role.
The film ultimately belongs to two people, though - Johnny Depp, and Marion Cotillard as his girlfriend. Depp brings enough charisma and vulnerability to his role to convince us of the frailty of The American Dream. This is the kind of role he has become famous for - full of charisma but devoid of reality. Cotillard has nothing much to do for the entirety of the film really, and is quite wooden, given that she does not look, sound or in any way resemble a native American. In the final moments of the film, though, she reminds us of why she won an Oscar.
Indeed, the final moments suddenly make you stop and take notice of this woman. You wonder what it would have been like to hear her complete story. With enough meat to chew, Cotillard attacks the screen with a wildness of character that is stuff of legend.
Of legends, too, is the action. I need to see Heat again sometime to confirm this, but Mann may have finally outdone the shootout that has made him a fan favourite for so many years. Dillinger and his men are in a jungle with Babyface Nelson, and that scene may yet kill the Heat shootout in the intensity sweepstakes.
Despite the utterly satisfying action, and the supremely meeting expectations vision of Depp riding shotgun with a tommy in his hand, there are times where the overall look is quite weird. I say weird because it's not bad, but something I can't quite fathom. That Mann pushes digital photography as much as he can is no secret, and this makes Dante Spinotti's work in the night time glorious beyond belief. At the same time his day-time shots look urgent yet completely fake. It's not the details, it's the complete clarity of digital film that takes away from the realism than add to it.
Regardless, this is a gorgeous film, and the script seems to know and respond to that. Some choices about the film may not be the best, but they all have the singularity of vision behind them from Mann, which makes everything you see on screen sing. The movie itself is not a classic, but it is as satisfying as any other crime film he has ever made.
This is the kind of quality film that even people who don't care for Mann will appreciate. What works works awesomely, and the rest still manages to at least serve the purpose of the vision. It's a little uneven, but even the disagreeable parts are stuff lesser directors struggle towards.