In 2009, Michael Mann brought us a 1930s gangster film about the life and crimes of John Dillinger. One would think with Michael Mann at the helm of this film that we would see a powerful film about the struggle of Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis, fighting to bring to justice legendary bank robber John Dillinger played by Johnny Depp. After all, Michael Mann has directed Heat, Collateral and Last of the Mohicans, right?
That’s what I thought when I went into this movie. As it turns out this is not that film, though it really tries to be. Set in the midwest during the great depression, we follow John Dillinger through presumably 1933 and 1934. Alot of this film is based on true accounts of the crimes and the investigation that took place for the capture of John Dillinger, as well as several other high criminals of the era.
This film was shot in a digital format and did, at least for me, take away from the film. The picture, while good in some of the settings, was lacking and felt like an amateur camera in others. I am not sure if this was because digital film was new back in 2009 and the technology has become much better now, but the overall feel for the viewing aspect was different and took me a while to get used to. This is true specifically in a scene where Dillenger robs a bank and jumps over the bank counter. In that scene, it was clearly a CGI mask done over the stuntman. This took me right out of the scene because it is so blatantly obvious. I felt like this film would have a better in the traditional 35mm format.
As with all of the Michael Mann films that I have seen, I do like the sound. One of the things that I took away from watching Heat was the echo from the gun fight in the street. I realized after seeing this that most of the movies that we see, the echo of the gun shot is edited out. Much like in Heat, this film does not and adds to the scenes where there is gunplay. Remember this is the 1930s. This was the time of the Thompson SubMachine Gun, Browning Automatic Rifles, Colt 1911s and Remington Automatic Rifles. These are loud guns and you get to hear all of them, adding to the experience.
Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, a real-life special agent in the FBI at this time. Bale turns in a moderately good performance as Purvis, but there are some scenes where Bale’s acting is a bit cheesy and simple. It almost had me wondering if Bale had to play this role due to a contractual obligation. There were also points in the film that I thought that Bale was limited in what he could do with the character. In the confrontation scene (the scene in the movie where our good guy finally meets the bad guy) it felt under performed on both sides by Depp and Bale. There was no big build up of tension from either side. Rather, it felt like the two just saying a few words and going on with their day.
As for the performance of Johnny Depp, I was caught in the middle with saying that the performance was good to being less than impressed. There are parts of the film where Depp really shines through and puts on a really good performance. There were other parts of the film where Depp acts as stiff as a board and is uninteresting. Though he does have the look of Dillinger in some of the scenes, I felt that in others he lacked the presumed charisma that Dillinger had.
When I take the whole movie into account it’s hard to say that it was a bad film. It really was not. It has its moments, but it is really hard to get through with some low points in the movie. There are some really good action scenes and some, though few, good dramatic scenes. Overall, the film does work. In the end if you’re looking for a good historical drama about the 1930s crime spree and early work of the FBI this is a good starter film for you.