So Public Enemies, writer/director Michael Mann's slick new crime drama, is getting pretty decent reviews, but reading them doesn't exactly make us excited to see the damn thing. Mann is just so uneven—a technical wizard who ignores everything else.
There are whiffs of that sentiment coming off the reviews. Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly says "Public Enemies re-creates clothes, but doesn't fully fashion the man who wore them." Which reads to us like the film is just another feat of stylish camerawork and deftly-applied new technologies (Enemies was filmed entirely in HD, for example). Schwarzbaum sends the film to critical no man's land by giving it a listless B-. What are we to do with a B minus?
There's no doubt that Mann is a supremely talented director—Manhunter is a plodding procedural picture that is probably the most adeptly faithful adaptation of Thomas Harris' often florid prose (Silence of the Lambs is too lovely and sad and mysterious and wistful—it's its own thing entirely). And Heat, well Heat is a crime movie to end all crime movies. There any dash of emotion and depth of feeling (thanks be to you, Diane Venora) was a welcome and surprising respite from what the film needed to be, which was grim and mechanical.
The same holds true of "Public Enemies," which looks and plays like no other American gangster film I can think of and very much like a Michael Mann movie, with its emphasis on men at work, its darkly moody passages, eruptions of violence and pictorial beauty. Mr. Mann's digital manipulations, in particular, which encompass almost pure abstraction and interludes of hyper-realism, is worthy of longer exegesis, one that explores how this still-unfamiliar format is changing the movies: it allows, among other things, filmmakers to capture the eerie brightness of nighttime as never before.
See, there she is being dazzled by the same magicks that have left us feeling all dour and depressed after all of the most recent Mann pictures. Sure Collateral looked great, but where was the genuine tension, where was the human spark that should have made us care about Jamie Foxx's survival? Miami Vice had striking visual moments as well, but was otherwise cold as a fish flopping on a Key West dock. The whole "my partner got shot, oh my god" moments were swallowed up by Mann's turgid music, his gloomy, oppressive lighting. (And about that music. It's a semi-known fact that Mann is going deaf, but still insists on doing his own audio mixing.)
Lately we're worried that there really isn't anything else up Mann's sleeve but polished trickery. Public Enemies, what with the economy these days and all, could be a story of poor America bubbling over into revolt. And maybe it is! We haven't seen it! But from the ten or so reviews we've read, it sounds mostly the same as everything else. And yet he's still one of those few directors that thoughtful critics love to love. Because he shows them something gritty and dangerous and, most of all, cool, when most of the Good films they review these days are sparkling indies or message movies. Though it's not like there aren't other people making cannily-shot crime films—the sublime No Country for Old Men comes to mind. But there was something mysterious and existential and, well, deep at work in that movie that Mann has so far seemed unable to conjure.
What do you think? Can 66-year-old Michael Mann make a movie these days that's hinged more heavily on story and character than on technical craft? Do you care?