Michael Mann has made some good films: Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Collateral (I’m not sure about Ali); hell, I even liked Miami Vice. The prospect of Mann making a film based on the true story of John Dillinger, with Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked with bringing him down, was something to relish, and I remember the hype for the film before it came out. However, having seen it, I can’t say I remember the film itself with such clarity.
Although the film is not a completely accurate depiction of the life and death of Dillinger (see the Wikipedia page for a list of departures from fact), it does follow the broad strokes of the heyday of the notorious bank robber and the FBI hunt. This should make it an exciting and interesting film, with two very enjoyable actors in the main roles. Depp is very good but there is little on screen to indicate the greatness of Heat (by which all Mann films, especially ones about criminals, will be judged); the film is just there and doesn’t sizzle.
I thought Billy Crudup was very good as J Edgar Hoover (it’s good to see him getting regular roles – I always thought he would be huge after Almost Famous, where he was fantastic, but it never happened – and this is in stark contrast to Watchmen for different roles) and Marion Cotillard is good but wasted in the role of Dillinger’s girlfriend.
The most divisive element of the film was the decision to shoot on HD – Mann shoots a good film and it is technically excellent and well done, but there is something incongruous about seeing a period piece on digital. I know I shouldn’t be bothered by such a trivial issue, but it kept causing me to jump out of the film because it didn’t look right – there are lots of hand-held shaky shots, tracking jerkily with the characters, which is something I associate with the hectic nature of modern life, rather than the supposed slower pace of yesteryear (which is probably a misconception on my part). Add this to the lacklustre story, and the feeling that the film isn’t as good as previous Mann efforts, and you’ve got a film that’s just all right – perhaps with some distance in the future, it can be revisited, but for now you’re left feeling a little nonplussed.