Universal is counting on one thing to open Michael Mann’s Public Enemies: Johnny Depp. According to The Ulmer Scale, he’s the second most popular movie star in the world, after Will Smith. That’s based on his hugely successful roles as broadly comedic, over-the-top Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But while Sweeney Todd wouldn’t have done as well without him, Depp can only move the needle so far.
Being a movie star means giving the audience what they want, most of the time. Even that doesn’t seem to be working this summer, as movies starring Will Ferrell, Eddie Murphy and Christian Bale have stumbled at the b.o. While this may give the studios more leverage in reducing movie star salaries going forward, it doesn’t solve the problem that Universal is facing right now–and studio co-chairman Marc Shmuger is circling in this revealing LAT story about the waning power of stardom. Do audiences want Depp as a fairly realistic, non-fantasy version of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger?
Advance tracking for Public Enemies, which opens July 1, indicates that Depp has some star allure. But early reviews reveal that the movie is not populist fare. (Here’s Variety and Time.) It’s Mann’s take on a familiar saga: outlaws on the lam, running out of time, relentlessly pursued by the Feds. Mann populates the movie with compelling actors, from Depp to Christian Bale as FBI-man Melvin Purvis, Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, Stephen Lang as a Texas Ranger and incomparable Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s beloved gun moll. She warms up the movie, thankfully, as the one person he cares about. While fitfully engaging, the movie is often flat as a pancake, no matter how hard Elliot Goldenthal’s jazz-inflected score works to pump things up. Only in the last half hour, as Dillinger fights for his life as the Feds turn his one-time allies against him, does the movie tighten into a taut and riveting drama.
Mann has always been a modern filmmaker working at the forward edge of technology and style. His biggest misstep here is the same as the Wachowskis with Speed Racer. His pursuit of what interests him formally may leave audiences behind. He wanted to immerse us in the period, he told me, by shooting the picture in high-definition video. The Sony F23 allowed him to manipulate color in the camera, cinematographer Dante Spinotti told ICG Magazine. “You can’t come back,” he said. “In other words, we were not recording in a safe, comfortable way.” Mann confessed to playing with a digital intermediate quite a bit, and was color-correcting up to the last minute before last week’s LAFF premiere.
HD is clear, harsh, honest. It works fine in a contemporary setting like Collateral or Miami Vice. (Somehow, David Fincher, who attended the Public Enemies premiere last week, made period HD work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac.) But when moviegoers watch a period film, no matter how authentically recreated, they aren’t expecting it to look like this. There’s something jarring about the way Public Enemies shoves us into the past. While Steven Soderbergh alienated folks by shooting The Good German using old-studio techniques, the way Mann shot Public Enemies calls attention to its modernity. (UPDATE: SpoutBlog’s Karina Longworth also addresses the film’s production values.)