Public Enemies is a thoroughly detailed and engaging crime epic, which traces the criminal exploits and pursuit of infamous gangster, John Dillinger.
Under the ever tenacious control of Michael Mann, Public Enemies does not resort to gangster movie cliché in order to tell its story. After all, why should Mann rest upon the laurels of other crime films, when the facts -cold and frank- hold enough meat for the tsar of modern crime movies to sink his teeth into?
With Brain Burroughs book as his guide and muse, Mann has crafted a film sure to alter the face of American crime movies, with Public Enemies succeeding in its authentic depiction of Great Depression era America, in which its villains were treated as heroes and authority with disdain.
Gone is the thin veil of cinematic celluloid, replaced with a digital clarity which -although can distract with its frankness and steady cam jiggle- further adds to its pedigree as a credible period piece. Locations have a sense of the tangible to them; costume and props (from weaponry to auto mobile) match the smallest of details; and its characters are realistically portrayed by a stellar cast, with the men –Johnny Depp and Christian Bale especially- delivering Mann’s patented brooding.
Public Enemies begins with criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) busting his gang out of prison. A bank robbing crime spree in and around the Chicago area follows, with the public enraptured with Dillinger’s stick-it-to-the-man shtick, despite his tendency to use hostages as human shields to assure a clean getaway.
With Dillinger still at large, the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), led by the authoritative and media savvy J. Edgar Hoover (a wonderful Billy Crudup), names Dillinger Public Enemy No.1 and promises his capture.
Assigned the case is top cop Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who leads a task force to apprehend Dillinger and his cohorts, among them: Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Homer van Meter (Stephen Dorff), and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), who Purvis killed during a tense shootout.
Bale delivers a solid performance, regaining some ground after poor showings in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation. Yet much like those two films, Bale is dwarfed by a much more charismatic co-star, with Johnny Depp stealing the film in his cool as ice depiction of Dillinger.
Slyly cocky, confident, violent and above all determined, Depp displays qualities rarely seen in his impressive body of work, and is an example of how to play the villain without resorting to aggressive theatrics, ala Al Pacino in The Godfather.
With the crims in pursuit by the feds, Public Enemies quickly becomes an urban war film, with G-Men trading machine gun rounds with gangsters in fierce gun battles done Mann style, the crisp thunder clap of gunfire sure to make the viewer shudder in their seats.
Yet throughout its brooding machismo lies a love story between Dillinger and his tough yet humble Billie Frechette, played by an irresistible Marion Cotillard. Mann’s films have always been the domain of men, and while Public Enemies is no different, the relationship between Dillinger and Frechette –all real, with no Hollywood sap – adds weight to the rise and fall of one of America’s most revered gangsters.