John Dillinger went down in history as one of the most famous criminals in the history of United States. He was a bank robber during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. While the people bled poverty, Dillinger and his gang performed daring and dangerous theft operations. Obviously he was a crook, but as a crook who took from banks, those big bad selfish establishments, he was viewed in somewhat positive light by the many in the general public. Director Michael Mann brings the story of Dillinger’s final few months alive to screen in Public Enemies, based on the book of the same name written by Ryan Burrough.
The ever popular Johnny Depp steps into the shoes of the sly criminal, which turns out to be a smart casting decision. Depp has a varied filmography, proving time and time again that his range as an actor apparently knows no bounds. Depp’s Dillinger is, as most thieves should be, a confident man, a man who gambles his freedom with every heist, but who is ‘having too much fun today to think about tomorrow.’ Success breeds success in more ways than one. In the case of Dillinger, success is felt through the money he has, but also through the network of support he has in the criminal world. One evening, while out on the town he catches sight of Billie (Marion Cotillard) a coat check girl who is quickly won over by his bravado and charm. Their love affair proves to be a passionate one. Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, a special agent of the FBI working for J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Cudrup) and, with his special unit of young men hired to track down Dillinger and his scoundrels.
It’s a genre that has been treated rather well in cinema history. The last thing a person can claim is that it has been underused and under-appreciated. Whether in the United States or abroad, gangster movies have always found an audience and been successful. Some are less successful than others, but it can be said that making a gangster film is probably a safe bet. Public Enemies is an interesting case study. With the narrative, it follows the tried, tested an true plot of the gangster who had it all but due to various circumstances (of his own doing and not) eventually fell (since the film is inspired by the exploits of the real John Dillinger, it didn’t have much of a choice in the matter). Mostly due to Depp and Cotillard, the story movies along nicely, depicting Dillinger’s struggle with wanting a love in his life, his career as a bank robber, and his eventual failure to cope with the forces closing in on him when his partners and friends leave…or die. Simple enough, but done well at least. Depp and Cotillard have very good chemistry together in particular. Where things take a different turn is in the visual style applied by director Mann. The action was captured with a high-definition hand-held camera, the ones that are gaining tremendous popularity these days in film. Rather than provide the film with a typical slick Hollywood look, complete with careful steady cam shots and perfect panoramic views, Public Enemies has a gritty, ‘filmed on the go’ quality. The picture looks very good, but it takes a moment to grow accustomed to the very realistic, documentary atmosphere. As an experiment, Mann hits a home run. Pores on the skin are there for all to see, but that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise superb looking movie. Mann plays with the audiences expectations, many of whom might expect a glitzy show. If there’s something that disappoints, it would be in the handling of some shots in close quarters, when the camera sometimes moves frantically around, desperate to stay focused on the critical events in each scene. Such a technique can cause a dizzying effect, but thankfully the film doesn’t make this mistake all that often. There are more than enough beautiful shots to make up for it.
As a fan of gangster films in general and of director Michael Mann in particular, there were certain expectations that needed to be met. Public Enemies passed with flying colours. There is a reason why Johnny Depp graced the marketing posters. Christian Bale may be a big name in the industry, but this film is dominated by Depp’s presence. Dillinger is a fun character, but a three dimensional one as well. Hurt him and he bleeds, literally and figuratively. The film doesn’t dwell on the history of the man, nor does it make him the most complex person ever, but he is human and entertaining with his cocky and smooth attitude. Depp is memorable in the role with some great gangster lines which sound great with that Midwestern twang. Cotillard fares very well as Billie, the ‘lower class’ girl that Dillinger fancies. She’s an interesting choice as she delivers a lot of Americanized dialogue but with a definite French accent, this despite that her character grew up in the United States. That little oddity aside, there’s no question the actress can bring a character to life. For the most part she falls into the mould of the gangster’s girlfriend, but when such a role is filled by an actress like Cotillard, there’s still a special little bit of class to it. She doesn’t break new ground with the character, but it’s a fine performance nonetheless, especially in the latter scenes when she is under duress by the police. Billy Cudrup also appears in the story as J. Edgar Hoover, a desk man whose lack of experience in the field hasn’t hurt, in any shape or form, his ambition and public figure. Cudrup truly shines as Hoover, delivering lines with some real zest and spirit. It’s a supporting role only, but he’s great during every moment as this pompous and lively decision maker. Even in his limited time as Baby Face Nelson, Stephen Graham is incredibly amusing, even though the character is fairly one-dimensional. The actor who appears to receive the short end of the stick is Christian Bale. Like Johnny Depp, he’s proven more than enough times that he is a stellar actor but, admittedly, his Melvin Purvis isn’t the most engaging. He’s very workmanlike and so is the actor’s performance. No private life is shown, no downtime either. His arc within the story is mostly regarding the methods used to catch Dillinger. At first Purvis is convinced that he and his team of pretty boys, what with their police school training and all, will be more than equipped enough to handle the task at hand. It becomes apparent that Dillinger is far more ruthless and effective at evading capture than originally foreseen. Eventually Purvis must call on the help of some agents from the southern states who, suffice to say, don’t mind kicking some ass. Puvis eventually concedes that some more action-oriented manners may be better suited to end Dillinger’s reign of crime. Bale makes use of that steely glare of his, a smirk here and there, but not much more. In essence, Bale’s stature in the eyes of the movie buffs will probably determine how they react to this performance. I happen to like Bale a lot as an actor, so his mere presence was satisfying. There is a professionalism about the way he presents himself that I like personally, but it is understandable if that alone is insufficient for some. Many criticised the performance as utterly forgettable, and while I myself don’t echo that sentiment, I can see why such arguments emerged.
L.A Takedown, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice and now Public Enemies. Writer and director Michael Mann loves telling stories about people on the right and wrong sides of the law confronting each other, whether head-on or during drawn out games of cat and mouse. In each of these films the viewer is given an intimate look into the characters they feature. Sometimes the result is balanced, as in Heat, other times it feels skewed towards a character on one side, as in Miami Vice (Crockett on the side of the law) and here in Public Enemies with Dillinger taking the spotlight. Mann goes for realism, both visually and for the story, while ensuring that his protagonists and antagonists are human. PublicEnemies isn’t perfect by any means. As I’ve written, Bale, an excellent actor, doesn’t have much depth to work with and there are a couple of bizarre story related decisions, such as when Dillinger walks into a police station office without anybody taking notice (it’s a fun scene, but completely preposterous ). I’d still argue that it’s one of the better American mainstream films released in 2009.