Has Michael Mann lost it?
Adam Lee Davies mourns the passing of a major Hollywood talent as Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies' sees the great director still running on empty
Yet, since this brace of late-nineties classics, Mann has struggled to keep the quality bar high. He has tried his hand at lumbering prestige pictures such as ‘Ali’ (2001). He has investigated pioneering filming techniques by shooting ‘Collateral’ (2004) in HD digital video. He has even resorted to raiding his own back catalogue, directing a big-screen version of his hit ’80s TV show ‘Miami Vice’ (2006). All of these films have been deeply flawed, and so is his latest, ‘Public Enemies’, which stars Johnny Depp as Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. It finds Mann, like some modern-day Nero, fiddling about with his fancy cameras while the copious period details stifle any and all plotting and character development.
His once magisterial visual flair appears to have been thrown out with the bathwater when he decided to ditch film for video. ‘Public Enemies’ suffers badly from a lack of visual depth. It’s not the first time either: ‘Collateral’ offered some interesting aesthetic results, but one still came away with the feeling that the lightweight equipment and ease of shooting took up more of Mann’s interest than ironing out a problematic genre narrative. It’s a strikingly-shot film in which he, Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx drive around LA in search of a third act that never materialises. The undercooked excess of ‘Miami Vice’ (2006), meanwhile, offered much of the same, but this time without even the pretence of a plot to keep us interested. It’s a movie that resembles a well-filmed fashion shoot and packs all the narrative clout of a perfume ad.
His pitch-perfect approach to casting has also drifted. ‘Collateral’ would have us believe that Foxx – a strapping six-footer with a megawatt smile and quarterback good looks – is in fact a sad-sack cab driver with nothing going for him. ‘Public Enemies’ is not exactly miscast, but parades a few too many chiselled, good-looking gents before us to be taken entirely serious. Dillinger and his nemesis, Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale in Mann’s film), were played by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson in 1973’s ‘Dillinger’, and while there aren’t too many like that around any more, Mann’s cast look like boys dressing up. And if Depp and Bale do just about pass muster, there’s little about the lean, easy looks of Billy Crudup that suggest he’d be much of a fit for the role of bulldog-faced FBI director J Edgar Hoover other than the requirement to jimmy yet another handsome face on to the screen.
Mann’s obsessive attention to detail – arguably the cornerstone of all his work – is the one thing that hasn’t deserted him. It has, however, begun to weigh down his films. The period look and feel of ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (1992) was central to elevating it beyond the status of a workaday gung-ho romancer. But his unwieldy biopic ‘Ali’ (2001) is so overstuffed with rinky-dink period trappings and cultural veracity that everything else becomes secondary. The result is a cumbersome film that somehow manages – apart from the few moments when Mann lets the film breathe and, along with star Will Smith, dazzles us with fragments of placid, existential calm – to suck all the life out of one of the most charismatic characters of the twentieth century. To be fair, ‘Public Enemies’ suffers less from this, but one still feels the dynamism of the story is being strangled by the detail.
Being such a master of the medium is an enviable gift. Hitchcock had it, Tati had it and Guy Ritchie once read about it in an in-flight magazine. On the evidence of ‘Public Enemies’, Mann – it’s sad to report – seems to have misplaced it.
Author: Adam Lee Davies
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