Filmmaker Michael Mann seems most comfortable when he's playing cops-and-robbers. He also seems very at home telling real stories about real people. That's why Mann doing this slice of famed-criminal, John Dillinger's actual days is most appropriate.
Mann's past few films have used handheld, high-definition digital video cameras. He does the same here, so that, in close-ups, you can see every pore of Johnny Depp's face who stars as Dillinger. This provides a crisp image but one that always feels synthetic. I prefer movies shot on actual film, but with great lighting, digital video can mimic 35mm, but, here, Mann doesn't seem to do enough. His shots don't look real. They look hyper-real, especially when the camera is being whipped around in action scenes.
There are hardly any static shots here. Not that there's a ton of action! Yes, it's a Michael Mann movie. Obviously there's more than a few, drawn-out gunfights, but, Mann directs his camera documentary-style with what seems like no steadicam, unfortunately making almost every shot shaky.
What redeems Mann's cinematography is his clever framing. If you watch any of Mann's movies from this past decade, you'll find he loves close-ups, especially of faces. Most often he likes to dangle or merely throw those faces and other things in the corner foreground always to catch your eye.
As in Miami Vice (2006), Mann stages a shootout at night with nothing but a barrage of bullets and mostly silhouette bodies. It takes place in the woods and it looks as if Mann used minimal lighting for a more authentic effect. Problem was it got too dark to see people clearly and it made losing track of them easy. It got to a point where I didn't even know who was shooting whom.
Because we've been following them for about two hours, we know it's Dillinger shooting at the FBI agent sent to catch him, Melvin Purvis, played cold and calculatingly by Christian Bale (The Dark Knight and American Psycho).
A paradigm is established that we've seen before. Bad guys commit crimes like rob banks and the cops chase after them. This paradigm worked well in Mann's masterpiece, Heat (1995), starring Al Pacino who played the cop and Robert De Niro who played the robber. In this movie, the paradigm is a bit diminished.
About halfway through this picture, I made a note of the fact that we learn nothing about the FBI agent's personal story. We never learned what his family was like or if he had any interests outside his job.
In Heat, we learned about Pacino's cop-character, his wife and daughter. In American Gangster (2007), a film with a similar cops-and-robbers paradigm, Russell Crowe played the cop and we learned about his character's personal story, wife, child and even substance abuse. Here, however, we learn nothing about Bale's Melvin Purvis. In 140 minutes, we get no backstory, nothing to hold his hat on.
This wouldn't be a big deal, if not for the ending. A title card appears saying that Purvis committed suicide not long after the film's conclusion. Because we get nothing about Purvis' personal story, this comes as a surprise that totally drops whatever lift this film had.
Throughout the movie, pressure is put on Purvis to catch Dillinger. The stakes are raised. Purvis sees good men die and he's pushed to allow extreme and even illegal methods to apprehend the criminal. Nonetheless, I never felt Bale gave us enough to indicate that suicide was where his character was going.
I never felt the struggle. I'm not sure if that was Bale's doing, a problem with the script, or a choice by the director, but I felt if Bale were playing to that, it would have made his character more interesting. As it stands, his role could have been portrayed by a robot and have been just as effective.
Depp shines as he always does. I was a little put off by the constant serious look on his face. I don't think Depp smiled once in this entire movie. Depp's Dillinger is a cocky, intense, determined crook who takes what he wants rather fearlessly. Depp's Dillinger is the kind of criminal who could breeze into a police station in nothing but sunglasses and not feel an inch of anxiety.
The real standout is French actress and recent Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard who plays Billie, Dillinger's love interest. Billie starts as a strong-will, independent, working-class girl who resists at first but then gets carried away by Dillinger's brashness and confidence. She even becomes willing to take a beating for him. If Cotillard received another Oscar nomination for this, I wouldn't object.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated R for violence and language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 20 mins.