In some ways, Public Enemies is a substantially weaker film than either of director Michael Mann’s last two films, Collateral and Miami Vice. It’s less coherent, less focused, and less structurally confident; Mann comes across as uncertain about why he is attracted to the two lead characters. As a result, the movie often feels as if he’s shoehorning them into hisstandardized Tough, Cool, and Stoic paradigm. At their best, Mann’s movies wrestle with the tragedies and contradictions of masculinity; Public Enemies merely displays its masculine archetypes without comment.
That said, Public Enemies is a more ambitious film than anything he’s attempted since Ali (easily his worst movie, and his only true failure). It’s an attempt to move back toward the period- and place-driven 90s epics — Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider — that continue to define his reputation as a director. And for that, he deserves some credit. Mann is one of the few directors who can make a big-budget, star-driven summer action film that attempts a measure of complexity and ambiguity; that, by withholding information (sometimes too much), pushes the audience to engage rather than to surrender their mental facilities; that is at least as concerned with the quiet moments as with the loud and flashy ones. Public Enemies does not succeed on all of these fronts, but it makes a worthy attempt.
Mann often struggles as a storyteller, but he is among Hollywood’s most muscular filmmakers, a director with a stunning, singular cinematic eye. And over the last few years, he’s turned that eye toward high-definition video. Along with David Fincher, Mann is the director most responsible for pushing the boundaries of HD filmmaking. His HD camera work in Public Enemies is his best yet, and may represent the first truly successful attempt to develop a uniquely digital movie aesthetic. Zodiac, Collateral, and Miami Vice all looked breathtaking, in their own ways (Zodiac in particular), but all seemed to take their cues from 35mm. Rather than aim to look film-like, though, Public Enemies revels in the virtues of digital filmmaking; Mann gives the movie a crisp, crystalline sheen that comes across as both colder and closer than traditional film — more like human vision than a camera’s lens. Flawed as it is, the startling cinematography, along with Mann’s gift for macho iconography, make Public Enemies one of the year’s better movies, and a comparatively subtle alternative to the mind-numbing eardrum blasts that typically pass for midsummer action movies.