Public Enemies is the story of notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his rise and then ultimate fall at the hands of federal investigator Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). As Dillinger's infamous heists empty out Depression-era banks, Purvis is recruited into J. Edgar Hoover's new Bureau of Investigation, with the sole purpose of bringing down Dillinger, as an example of how effective a tool a federal investigative branch can be.
Michael Mann has a thematic continuity running through many of his films. He seems obsessed with divergent characters, usually who find themselves on opposite sides of the law. These characters may have similar (Heat) or distant (Collateral) personalities, but somehow find themselves entangled with their counterparts by both personal and professional proximity. And although they feature prominent gun play, most are in-depth character dramas cleverly disguised as action movies.
With Public Enemies the characters are the notorious bank robber John Dillinger and his pursuer, the prototype FBI investigator Melvin Purvis. Dillinger is less a monster, and more someone who is just really good at what he does: robbing banks. While Purvis is trying to bring new techniques – as well as some old-fashioned honor – to the nation's first federal police force. The timing of Dillinger's bank raids during the Great Depression make him an odd mixture of folk legend-cum-Robin Hood, mixed with the seriousness of his crimes during a period when many are experiencing financial ruin. J. Edgar Hoover's bid to create a federal law enforcement agency that can reach beyond the local jurisdiction of police forces necessary to catch these inter-state thieves singles Dillinger out as its first target: "Public Enemy Nr. 1."
Purvis has a southern decency about him that is often at odds with Hoover's singular, almost maniacal, purpose. But the innovative techniques and calm approach he uses to track and capture Dillinger offer a strong contrast to the outlaw's gang. While their group is dying from lack of innovation, this fledgling FBI group is growing.
With Public Enemies we have a very blunt look at cops and robbers. Some of the background of history – both for the time period and for the characters themselves – is left out, and instead we zoom in on this concentrated stretch of time and on these divergent characters. Dillinger's rock-star persona and sincere love for his girlfriend are played pitch-perfect by Depp. Bale's honorable lawman is forceful in his Stoicism, exuding subtle resolve more than outward emotion. And both men are making opportunities for themselves during a time when there are few to be had.
The film receives an easy transition over to Blu-Ray, as it was shot in high definition video. The resulting picture is appropriately sharp and edgy. As Mann comments in the bonus materials on the disc, after doing test shots with both traditional film and then hi-def video, he settled on hi-def for its stark realism. You were meant to feel as if you're living these events, and not remembering fondly back to a gauzy image of the '30s. In practice, this may be a more divisive preference, but the video is nonetheless highly detailed and offers excellent clarity and depth. It helps that the settings for the film are rich with color and exquisitely shot.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track delivers blistering gun play and car chases in meticulous surround sound. Unfortunately, it drops the ball a bit when it comes to the more important matter of dialogue, where levels seem to wander throughout the film. Nothing is muddy or unclear, but you'll find yourself constantly manning the remote to compensate for the volume shifts. But when its even, you're treated to a rather impressive separation, especially during the more layered action sequences.
There are several in-movie bonus items included on the Blu-Ray, and all offer quite a bit of additional information. First up is the commentary track with director Michael Mann. Although there are frequent quiet patches, when he pipes up he offers a host of interesting details on locations, characters, history and technical challenges. As both an accomplished and knowledgeable director, Mann provides an overall well-spoken track. But as interesting as it is, the other two options provide comparable information in a decidedly more interactive form. Both the picture-in-picture track and the historical time line track offer inset video supplements that pop up throughout the film. The former focuses on technical aspects of the film and involves a wider breadth of crew and on-set footage, while the latter uses edited content similar to the interview featurettes mentioned below. However, both include exclusive content (mostly) from the other bonus materials, and become true destination items instead of rehash bundles.
"Larger Than Life: Adversaries" (HD, 10:19) is a look at both Dillinger and Purvis, and predominantly features Depp, Bale and director Mann – inter-cut with archival photos and footage – sharing their thoughts on the two main characters and their different journeys. "Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies" (HD, 20:32) is the more standard making-of feature about the film, and is effective for not just the creation of the movie and Mann's approach to capturing Dillinger's character, but also covers a lot of the actual history behind the story. "The Last of the Legendary Outlaws" (HD, 8:44) covers the background of Dillinger and his gang, and also touches on the Depression-era environment of their deeds. "On Dillinger's Trail: The Real Locations" (HD, 9:48) is pretty much what it sounds like, although it's interesting how many of the actual locations were used in the film. "Criminal Technology" (HD, 9:39) is not just about the guns (and cars) they used, but also the sheer arsenal of Dillinger's gang, and how the robberies let them afford stocking the biggest and the best.
The "Gangster Movie Challenge" is a trivia game about Public Enemies and other gangster movies, and although it's a bit slight – as well as self-promotional – it does seem to offer some depth of questions beyond just a once through. Other standard BD-Live functionality such as scene and commentary sharing and movie trailers is present. Also included is a Digital Copy disc for your portable player.
As with many of his films, Mann's Public Enemies delivers something that you may not notice the first time through. You start with a story about a great bank robber and the guy who is trying to track him down. But what you walk away remembering, and what you notice more on subsequent visits, is why these people are the way they are, and what causes them to either adapt or die. These crime-fraught character studies are where Mann shines, and although Public Enemies may be a tick short of his best, it's very good.