There are some filmmakers who take the viewer into their confidence from the very first shot of a film, infusing it with such a particular atmosphere and attitude that one gives him or herself over to the picture completely, surrenders to it. Such artists are pretty rare; for myself, I count Jacques Rivette and Phillippe Garrel among them. And for quite a few cinephiles and critics, Michael Mann is absolutely one of them.
I admit that I've become something of a Mann agnostic in recent years. I have very little use for the florid romantic/existentialist tough-guy ethos that his films don't so much explore as worship. (Hence, I found rather a lot of Heat, something of a Holy of Holies for Mann fans, overblown and silly.) It's true that Mann has a visual/narrative style like no one else working in movies today, one that toggles between the intimate and the operatic in ways that constantly surprise the viewer. But of late I've found that his big stuff works better than his small, and that his adherence to digital shooting (which I imagine is at least in part in the better to serve his intimate modes) has produced decidedly mixed results. So I went into Mann's new picture, Public Enemies, with a considerable amount of trepidation.
I did not emerge a convert, but I wasn't entirely unimpressed, either. The more contemplative stretches of the film don't really work as Mann intended, they do come off as longueurs; but anyone who can't recognize them as art film flourishes ought to at least be suspected of willful stupidity. Dialogue along the lines of "Where are you going?"/"Anywhere I want" and "What do you want?"/"Everything, right now" and "I don't wanna be there when it happens" drives me right up the wall, always has, and boy there's plenty of that sort of thing here. But there are a few pretty spectacular set pieces here, and Manohla Dargis is right on target in her ecstatic New York Times review in which she describes certain of Mann's more bravura compositions, including a view of Johnny Depp's Dillinger—a "dark, ominous figure" that almost "blots out [the] sky." I found that pretty much at every point where I was losing patience with the film, Mann would reach into his bag and pull out another bit of purely exhilarating filmmaking. Kind of frustrating, really, but as I said above, also par for the course in most of my Mann experience.
And that said, the final 20 minutes or so of Public Enemies are staggeringly good, and make up some of the best work that Mann, and Depp, have ever done. These scenes are as wry and moving and profound and upsetting and cinematically audacious as Mann wants them to be. And it is perhaps no accident that they contain barely any dialogue. For my money, they certainly suffice to justify the film's existence. I look forward to hearing verdicts from Mann fans and sceptics alike.