Though John Dillinger’s story took place over 70 years ago, the manner in which the media and government branded him “Public Enemy #1” is not so dissimilar to the way modern lawbreakers are vilified today. And in many ways, Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is not so dissimilar to his highly regarded modern cops and robbers movie “Heat” (1995). Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have been replaced by Johnny Depp and Christian Bale; semi-automatics have been replaced by tommy guns; and flat out fiction has been replaced by a fictionalized account of true events. Mann may be telling a familiar story (the Deniro character actually has the exact same line of dialogue quoted above in “Heat”), but his experience with the topic, coupled with the rich nostalgia he creates for simpler times, make “Public Enemies” all the more engaging and gripping. And just because Dillinger and his boys walked around in suits and fedoras, it didn’t mean they were any less raucous than the guys in “Heat”.
While I never truly felt that “Public Enemies” exploded off the screen with excitement and tension, I was consistently floored with how impressive nearly every element of the film was. Mann’s direction is concise and assured. He takes us from Dillinger’s first jail bust in 1933 through a barrage of different bank robberies and past his arrest and second seemingly inevitable jail bust that followed. He does so as though on a mission but never in any hurried fashion and though we may or may not know how it is all going to end depending on our familiarity with the subject, every new sequence is entirely unexpected while still completely logical. “Public Enemies” is a technical triumph. Between Dante Spinotti’s cinematography (incidentally, he also lensed “Heat”), Jeffrey Ford & Paul Rubell’s editing and Patrick Lump & William Ladd Skinner’s art direction, I don’t know which is most impressive. I do know that they all culminate to create a tone that is seamlessly mesmerizing. The image is constantly moving and cutting and yet it is never so dizzying that we cannot appreciate how meticulously detailed it all is.
For the most part, the acting is just as impressive as the technical aspects. I have never found Depp to carry a lot of depth in his performances (pardon my pun). He is always solid and easy to look at but when he isn’t cookying it up for Tim Burton or donning his pirate gear, I find that what we get is a lot more Depp than it is character. As Dillinger though, you can see in his eyes that he is always thinking; you can feel that Depp is taking care to balance Dillinger’s thin interpretation of what is lawful and what is unacceptable. He does so with an assured control that I find is lacking when he is playing so naked a character. His chemistry with 2007’s Oscar winner for Best Actress, Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”), as his romantic interest, Billie Frechette, is seductive without ever slipping into oversimplified sap. Frankly, Cotillard could not have asked for a better role to mark her English language debut. The whole supporting cast is solid, including an amusing turn by Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. It is in fact only Christian Bale, as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent responsible for hunting Dillinger, that disappointed some, luckily with no major impact on the film. He wears a permanent sternness on his face but I never once bought his conviction.
Albeit a serious film, and a potentially serious awards season contender, “Public Enemies” is inherently playful, thanks to the very nature of Dillinger’s story. Technically, he is the bad guy here. He may have no interest in robbing from the common people but he is still a thief and yet he is our hero after all. We are led to side with him and how could we not when Depp is so easy to admire? He was the most wanted man in all of America and yet he would just walk the streets as though he knew nothing of it. Depp nails Dillinger’s disdain for authority and we love him for it because we all hate the “man”… with Michael’s exception, of course.
Review by Joseph Bélanger