Michael Mann's Public Enemies is an honest depiction of a life that could only be true in film. John Dillinger is played by Johnny Depp, another public figure whose inner life is ostensibly unknowable, and his foil, the budding G-man Melvin Purvis, is played by Christian Bale. As Depp plays him, he is a romantic, disciplined figure of the public's mythic conscience; Robin Hood in a three-piece suit with a Tommy gun at his side. Above him, around him and to him, Mann emphasizes not only the birth of organized, capitalist-driven crime but the sheer thrill of being romanced by such a public figure.
At a drab Midwest prison circa 1933, Mann begins with a breathless prison break orchestrated by Dillinger and compatriot John "Red" Hamilton (Jason Clarke) to release the bulk of their Chicago gang, which included mentor Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Homer Van Peter (Stephen Dorff). His return to
Public Enemies is set during the depression but nothing on the screen suggests the depleted environs, save for the public's love for the concept of simply taking the government's money whenever they please. Mann's film is not a chronicle of American history as much as it is a chronicle of a pivotal point in
In Mann's film, Nelson is played by the great British character actor Stephen Graham, a force to be reckoned with in Shane Meadows' This is England. He is, along with Karpis and Dillinger, the reason that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup in fine form) is seeking to turn his Bureau of Investigation into a Federal body, with Purvis as his lead G-man. As fatalistic as the man he chases, Purvis is introduced as he guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (a brief Channing Tatum) in an orchard and exits as the smallest cog in Dillinger's death. Betrayed by father figure
As with his last film, the nocturnal free-flow Miami Vice, Public Enemies at once works to concrete Mann's immense talents while further pointing out his minor but telling weaknesses. Soundtracked mainly by Mort Dixon's "Bye Bye Blackbird" and other depression-era lullabies, there is still that indulgence in steely electric guitars to emphasize action and pace, less prominent and much preferred over the swells of Audioslave that dogged both Miami Vice and Collateral.
Like The Dark Knight, Enemies is an unlikely summer entry; one that must accept certain conventions to ensure its box office yet consistently upends and reevaluates the very parts of its DNA that make it a hopeful box office titan. Paced smartly and fitted with solid ensemble performers, which also includes the stage actor Stephen Lang and Rory Cochrane as Purvis' partners, Public Enemies enlists digital cinematography in the most provocative commercial form to date, adding looseness and clarity to a genre usually noted for its tight framing. Wielded by Mann's staple lenser, the crafty and deft Dante Spinotti, Mann's camera peers into the film's nighttime siege of Nelson and Dillinger's woodland hideout with an uncanny ease and thrilling precision; the film's aesthetic feels as if it's on the lam along with its central figure.
Depp's performance, calibrated and deployed with a leopard-like charm, doesn't outshine Bale nor does it work to tower above prominent screen partner Cotillard. Mann has always been an expert at harmonious acting: You may remember the scene between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat but it is not the film's most memorable scene. The film, written by Irish scribe Ronan Bennett along with Mann and Southland creator Ann Biderman, is based on Bryan Burrough's astute study of the crime waves prominent in the early 1930s and the subsequent birth of Hoover's FBI; the film's relation to movement and the chase rather than the national reflection speaks to the gone-tomorrow mentality of the era more than the vision of a thousand breadlines. Like its two lead characters, Public Enemies has certain nostalgia for the flash of early crime, the simplicity of it; it has an open distaste for procedure and concentrates on the swiftness and cunning of these jailhouse playboys. Obviously relating to Dillinger and Purvis, Mann chooses innovation over security, a Tommy gun over a ledger.
Chris Cabin is our very own resident film critic. You can find other reviews at AMC's Filmcritic.com. His opinions are not necessarily those of The KCB.
The KCB: Here is a featurette on the crew and staging of a bank robbery in the film; it echoes all of Michael Mann's crime film work, he loves the idea of a crew: