There’s one flat-out great sequence in Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies, the kind that makes you wish you were watching another movie. It’s a spectacular (and poorly thought-out) shoot-out in a lodge in the Wisconsin woods where John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson, the two most notorious gangsters of their time, are holed up. It’s the opposite of those scenes in Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986), or even on “Miami Vice”, which Mann produced — not those trademark tense scenes shot with paradoxical languor, with still bodies cut by shards of light, but with jittery handheld cameras.
Mann has been proven to be an efficient director of action (see the otherwise bloated Heat from 1995), and his sharp eye is actually aided here by using nothing but digital cameras all throughout. The cameras, practically up people’s nostrils, plunge you into the frenzy of the shootout: heat and light everywhere, the din of gunshot and breaking glass, Tommy guns literally ablaze, the sparks from their muzzles momentarily overexposed and blown out on camera. The gangsters run into the dark forest, and the DV camera makes the woods look alive, swarming with digital motes and jellyfish tendrils of fog. When the sequence ends in a forest clearing — death twitches galore and blood squibs exploding everywhere — you finally exhale. It’s unfortunate that it’s surrounded by over two hours of dullness.