Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s best film since 1995’s Heat, but it’s not without its faults. What is refreshing is to see an old-school gangster flick with a stellar cast. This is a very intriguing portrait of John Dillinger, the famed bank robber and the FBI’s first-ever “Most Wanted” man. Mann and his writers have painstakingly researched the man and his tactics, and the results feel authentic, if not fully developed. So much went on in Dillinger’s short life that it may be worthy of the Ken Burns treatment.
It’s the early 30’s and crime is booming. The villain: the banks. John Dillinger (Depp) and his clan are knocking over banks at an alarming rate. With his cunning and shrewd demeanor, it didn’t take long for Dillinger to become a folk hero of sorts. On the other end of the spectrum are the Feds, led by Melvin Purvis (Bale). Their inability to capture Dillinger and their clan is rapidly becoming a national embarrassment, and they are forced to cut loose the softies and bring in some Southern lawmen.
Mann has captured the look and feel of the Midwest in the 30’s flawlessly. The cinematography by Dante Spinotti, some of which was shot on HD Video, is richly saturated and Oscar-caliber. The color palette almost begs for black and white. Mann, who is no stranger to elaborate shootouts, stages several here with a lot of success. A showdown near a remote Wisconsin cabin is the centerpiece, and is brutal in its simplicity. No soaring music is to be found and the guns and violence are loud and cringe-worthy, just as it should be. With the film is a technical accomplishment, several of the story elements fall short. The extended romance between Dillinger and Billie Freschette (Cotillard) is half-baked at best and disengaging at worst. The whole thing is basically boiled down to Dillinger telling her that she’s his girl and then she makes for a convenient plot device down the line.
Considering the stacked cast, it should come as no surprise that the performances are superb. Depp, who could read off his CD collection with more gusto than most actors out there, embodies Dillinger. He pulls off the dry humor masterfully (a lot of his one-liners reminded me directly of Doc Holliday in Tombstone) and relays the cockiness that Dillinger undoubtedly had. As the pursuant FBI agent Purvis, Bale isn’t given a whole lot of exciting material to work with, but he makes the best of it. Cotillard takes her skeletally-written character and makes the most of it.
Public Enemies is an above-average gangster film and certainly a welcome addition to what has become an anemic genre at the movies. John Dillinger is an endlessly fascinating character in American history and I’m sure that much more complete records are available with great detail regarding his crimes and lifestyle. Mann has delivered where he always does, which is in action sequences and palpable suspense. The narrative has a few holes, but on the whole this will please fans of the genre and those looking for an accessible document of John Dillinger’s life.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 140 Minutes
Rating: R for gangster violence and some language.
Theatrical Release: July 1, 2009
Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Ronan Bennett & Michael Mann & Ann Biderman. Based upon the book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34” by Bryan Burrough.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum, David Wenham, Stephen Graham