Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup
“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whisky and you. What else you need to know?” Not much. Not that we get a chance to; throughout Michael Mann’s tale of the 1930’s real-life Robin Hood, John Dillinger (Depp) remains a cipher.
Sure, he looks the part. But then Johnny Depp in a hat would look good in any film (see Pirates of the Caribbean). The problem is that we don’t get to know much of him, apart from the obvious: he robs banks, steals from the rich and is apparently popular with the public. “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours,” he nods to one petrified customer. Someone should probably explain to him what an ISA is.
Doggedly pursued by the FBI, his dance with the detectives continues as he repeatedly springs any jail they throw at him. Cue media-savvy pansy J Edgar Hoover (an excellent Billy Crudup), who dubs Dillinger America’s first Public Enemy Number One. Who’s the man to bring him down? Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Bale).
Sure, Melvin has a wussy name, but he’s determined, focussed, and good with a rifle. A motivated lawman, then. But motivated by what? That bit’s unclear. The character-skimming continues when Dillinger’s darling, Billie Frechette (Cotillard), enters the scene. He’s so devoted to her that he punches a guy in the cloakroom where she works. And boy, does she love him for that. At least, we presume she does – after an engaging 10 minutes, she disappears for most of the film. Apparently Batman’s too busy to bother with a possible kidnapping.
The imbalance of egos is an irksome thing, especially from a director who specialises in two-player tussles. But Mann’s trademarks are still there: from the wonderful vintage soundtrack to the beautifully stylised shots, this film has its maker's prints all over it. Mann’s choice to go digital (a divisive decision) works wonderfully, taking what could’ve been a period piece and smacking it bang up to date. This is no old-timey celluloid news reel, this is history in high definition; a myth-making, hyper-real documentary. When they rob banks, they really rob banks. And when they fire off their guns, those bangs hit home. A bit too hard, in fact; sound-wise, Public Enemies is a tad shoddy, the editing sometimes rendering the dialogue completely inaudible.
The cast do well, though, with Depp’s charismatic (if hollow) presence easily holding the frame – after years on the fringe, Depp’s a serious Oscar contender for next year. Bale, too, brings his usual brutal intensity to an underwritten role. And Cotillard is captivating beyond her curtailed cameo. But this is a macho film, in which men steal from other men and drive manly cars powered by pure testosterone – old Frenchy with her coats never stood a chance. A shame, really, given Mann’s track record with relationships: an in-cab chill-out for Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith; Hawkeye and Cora's forbidden fling; even with Heat's steamy coffee shop scene, Eady got her fair share of De Niro.
So with a distant protagonist, an overlooked antagonist, mumbly dialogue and a missing person, why bother with Public Enemies? Well, because it’s a Michael Mann film. From opening frame to closing fade out, this stylish, tense shootout is always worth watching. Dillinger's reckless life is as captivating as it is condemned - the final sequence in the Biograph theatre is a work of art. Public Enemies may not be perfect, but it’s 2 hours and 20 minutes of utterly gripping cinema. And in a world where Michael Bay exists, that’s definitely something to enjoy.
It’s a Michael Mann movie – what more do you need to know? An old-school homage with new-school cameras, Mann’s mesmerizing monument is as thrilling as it is flawed. Epic, enigmatic, but always exciting.