They say that desperate times call for desperate measures. During the middle years of the Great Depression, said situations actually called for desperados. America was awash in outlaw criminality, a combination of factors reconstructing a Wild West mentality. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the city of big shoulders, Chicago. With Al Capone facing charges of tax evasion, and other notorious criminals such as Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker making headlines, America had more than its fair share of public enemies. But none angered fledgling director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover more than John Dillinger -- and it's this debonair, disturbing rogue that sits at the center of Michael Mann's latest cool, contemplative crime thriller. Article continues below
When we first meet the infamous bank robber (Johnny Depp), he is entering prison. Within minutes, however, he is escaping, aided by a crew made up of associates Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff), John "Red" Hamilton (Jason Clarke), and Harry Pierpont (David Wenham). As the gang resumes its crime wave across the Midwest, the FBI (with Billy Crudup as Hoover) calls on Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), to set things right. As the new head of the Chicago bureau, it is his job to bring Dillinger to justice. When his local field agents appear incapable of doing the job, Purvis calls in old associates Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang) and Donald Gordon (Don Frye). After several confrontations and captures, Dillinger still manages to elude justice. But when he takes a shine to torch singer Billie Frenchette (Marion Cotillard), Purvis sees a possible way of getting to the wanted felon once and for all.
As an example of his continuing fascination with digital filmmaking and slow-burn narrative aesthetic, Mann's Public Enemies is excellent. The new technology never gets in the way of the old-world period piece feel, even when the lack of celluloid crispness gives the progressive ruse away. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who's worked with Mann before, paints 1930s America in cold grays and somber earth tones. Even sequences like the standoff at the Little Bohemian Lodge (filmed at the actual location) offset their inherent firefight bravado with a muted motion picture palette. This is perhaps Mann's most successful use of this ongoing artistic experiment. Public Enemies looks like a handpainted newsreel, with some obvious directorial flourishes.
As Dillinger, Johnny Depp owns the screen. He is in practically every scene, and his solid superstar presence provides the necessary in for an audience who wouldn't know a Tommy Gun from Tommy Lee. But he is more than just an icon here. Depp redefines the infamous people's Robin Hood. Sure, he's suave and slick, but we can also see the fear, and the foolish swagger, that will be his eventual undoing. Since we know how his story will end, it is up to Mann to make Dillinger as engaging as possible. Even though he's a cold-hearted killer, we have to care what happens to him in the end. There is no such setup for the rest of the cast. Everyone from Crudup (a stitch as a snippy Hoover) to Bale (drawling away amiably) delivers in ways that aid in maintaining Mann's understated approach.
But the real revelation here is Cotillard. As Frenchette, her wide-eyed mob moll wannabe is so honest in her feeling for Dillinger, so scared of what will eventually happen to him, that when she is interrogated by a ruthless agent, we are devastated by the results. As a lynch pin between the romanticizing of crime and its realities, the Oscar-winner is wonderful. She's the perfect counterpoint to Depp's dreamboat deviousness.
If you come here looking for history or over-the-top action, Public Enemies will likely disappoint. Mann is more than happy to throw dozens of characters at the screen with little or no introduction or information, and while the bullets do indeed fly, the filmmaker keeps the gunplay in purposefully precise check. While it's missing an emotional epiphany, a sense of cinematic awe that turns the masterful into a masterpiece, this is still a very good, very entertaining film. Mann may believe he is pushing the edge with his newfound affection for digital, but Public Enemies is really old fashioned filmmaking.