Public Enemies

Public Enemies (2009)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale Marion Cottilard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Video Commentary, BD Live

Like most movie fans, I love Michael Mann, a creative force who has written, directed and produced many movies that have held audiences captive. Whether he's taking on an epic project like "The Last Of The Mohicans," a purely political theme like "The Insider" or a modern day crime saga as he did in "Heat," Michael Mann has a vision that he drives home with each of his films. As such "Public Enemies" came highly anticipated and as soon as the Blu-Ray copy arrived here, I had to take a look. Interestingly, the film turned out very differently than expected.

"Public Enemies" tells the story of the notorious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), who, during the escalating crime wave of the 1930s, has risen to Public Enemy #1 status through a series of brutal bank robberies. Dillinger and his men didn't care how many bodies they left in their wake, how much bloodshed was necessary to get to the money or how many cops they had to murder in the effort. As a result the FBI, spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover, put agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) in charge of the Dillinger squad, whose sole purpose was to track down Dillinger and his gang, and to put and end to their killing spree.

The real life story of John Dillinger and his gang has gone down in the books as one of the most violent in American Gangster history. Dillinger was smart and creative, always one step ahead of the FBI agents that were tracking him. He knew how to disappear in plain sight and he knew how to outmaneuver and outgun the G-Men on his heels. But in the end his pride and the love for a woman became his downfall.

I had great expectations for "Public Enemies" not only because of Michael Mann's attachment to the film but also because of the incredible cast. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are only two of the stars in a film that is studded with familiar faces even in small parts. Unfortunately the film does not put all that potential to full use, which brings us to the problems afflicting the release.

I do not know what exactly went wrong in the production of this film but to put it in a nutshell, everything about "Public Enemies" is unbalanced. First and most noticeable is the camera work. While visually it starts out like any Hollywood movie, before long you will notice a jarring switch in the film's look as the filmmakers switch from traditional camera work to digital cameras. Nothing wrong with that in general, but what happens here is that suddenly you have shots that look like they were taken straight from the "America's Most Wanted" TV production. You know, one of those re-enactments that have a clear non-movie look because of their deep depth of field. While the effect itself is instantly pulling viewers out of the movie experience, things are made worse by the fact that the filmmakers switch between regular and digital shots multiple times in a single scene, leaving viewers almost nauseated. This is happening throughout the 140 minutes of the film, constantly breaking the cinematic illusion and reminding the viewer that they are watching just a movie instead of experiencing the story.

Just as unbalanced as the visual presentation is the audio on the release. The volume jumps all over the place. This is not necessarily a bad thing if crafted carefully and for best effect, but what we have here is that an actor may say a line of dialogue which is barely audible, only to have a small portion of one of the sentences blare out of your speakers at full volume. Neither the actor nor the camera changed position suggesting a spatial rearrangement of the dialogue. No, it is really what I would call a blatant mistake in the audio editing where different elements have not been properly balanced.

Which brings us to the next big imbalance of the film, the writing. It is hard to fathom what Michael Mann's intentions were when he made this film. Aside from all the aforementioned technical distractions the script is also unfocussed and poorly balanced. Not only does the story have virtually no highlights or suspense to speak of, but all of the characters are flat and dry. More importantly, they are all unlikable. There is not a single character in the movie that I could root for – except Billie Frechette maybe, Dillinger's girlfriend, because she had very little influence over what happened to her or anyone else for that matter. There is no protagonist in the film, and a lot of it has to do with the dialogue. Unnatural, not even Johnny Depp's caliber delivery of lines can gloss over the fact that these characters have virtually nothing to say. And Christian Bale's ham-fisted character – whom he brilliantly portrays – is also not a man of many words, simply barking orders to his men in his raspy voice. There is no cohesiveness to the story or characters that would transport viewers into the world of 1930 Chicago and when the film comes to its predictable end – which is not anyone's fault, of course – we watch completely detached as Dillinger is gurgling his last breath.

The Blu-Ray release offers the film up in a 1080p high definition transfer that is clean and clear. As mentioned before there are serious issues with the material to begin with, but as far as the Blu-Ray presentation quality goes, it is a wonderful transfer without flaws.

The release contains a number of bonus materials such as a commentary track by Michael Mann as well as an interview featurette with Michael Mann. Further you will find featurettes on the "Larger Than Life Adversaries" on the disc, along with a look at the "Last Of The Legendary Outlaws." A visit to the real locations of the events and a look at the criminal technologies employed at the time – wiretaps were all the rage – are also included. Further you will find picture-in-picture video content on the release, including an interactive timeline, as well as a BD Live "Gangster Movie Challenge" game.

To round out the release, the disc also includes exclusive bonus features for your mobile device, such as an iPhone or iPod. I also noticed another new feature that Universal employed on this release which I did not like and feel is worth mentioning. If you're Blu-Ray player is connected to the Internet, during the main menu, Universal is streaming advertising from the web. As a result, part of the screen is covered by an annoying news ticker band and mini video clips for upcoming discs and theatrical releases. Advertising is all good, but this is beginning to get so incredibly intrusive that it is no longer welcome. What's next? An advertising ticker in the letterbox while the movie is running?

"Public Enemies" could have been a wonderful film, but sadly a number of bad decisions – both technical and creative – have made this movie a sore disappointment. The Blu-Ray version is flawless in its own right, reproducing the film perfectly, flawed as it is, while also adding some interesting bonus materials. In my book however, "Public Enemies" has to be considered Michael Mann's greatest blunder.