The era of gangsters comes to life in the Michael Mann-directed blockbuster Public Enemies. An all-star cast is anchored by Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean, Sweeney Todd), who gives an outstanding performance as the iconic Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger.
John Dillinger is a bank robber who was embraced by the public in a time when banks were seen as evil institutions. Dillinger was seen as a sort of Robin Hood-esque sympathetic character, and this film follows Dillinger from a daring jailbreak of some of his gang in 1933 to his gruesome fate in 1934. During this time he captivated the American people with his daring bank jobs and natural charisma. J. Edgar Hoover declared America’s first war on crime and dedicated himself to catching Dillinger. This era of bank robbers is almost the final gasp of breath from the old outlaws of the Wild West, and watching the dapper Dillinger and his band of thieves run wild through the Midwest serves as a reminder of a bygone era in U.S. history. Depp shines in the role, and you can tell he is having fun exploring such a fascinating character.
Christian Bale (The Dark Knight, Terminator Salvation) plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent in charge of catching Dillinger. Purvis is a lawman from the old school, and the controversial tactics employed by the FBI to catch these thieves often conflicts with Purvis’s morals. Bale turns in a good performance as a man who is unsure if what he is forced to do makes him any better than the people he is trying to apprehend.
This film is full of stellar supporting roles. The always fantastic Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Watchmen) is cruelly underused as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup absolutely steals every scene he is in. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) turns in a fine performance as Billie Frechette, a woman who becomes romantically involved with Dillinger. Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Graham, and Jason Clarke all shine as criminal accomplices of Dillinger. Such a fascinating stable of characters is even more interesting as you keep in mind that every single one of these men was a real person.
This leads to what might be the most salient point of Public Enemies. Michael Mann was very committed to making this movie as accurate as possible. A climatic shootout between the FBI and Dillinger’s gang occurred at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. This scene in the film was shot at the actual location of the shootout. Bullet holes can still be found in the walls and spent shell casings are present outside amidst the foliage. An exciting escape from prison is shot in the same prison the real outlaw escaped from. In an example of history being better than fiction, the exact same escape tactics are shown in the film as those used in the thrilling real life escape. Depp falls exactly where the real Dillinger was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, which was transformed to look like 1934 for the film.
The special features in this Special Edition DVD are both entertaining and informative. Featurettes about the real Dillinger and Purvis are fascinating and feature lots of good interviews with Depp, Bale, and Mann. One featurette examines all of the real locations used for the film. Another one focuses on the guns and cars used by the Dillinger gang and how the cast was trained to use them realistically. A feature commentary by Mann offers all of the insight you would expect from one of the most talented directors making movies today.
Mann’s dedication to detail and accuracy really comes through as the entire movie is an appeal to quality. When I initially watched the movie in theaters this summer, I was entertained but slightly underwhelmed. After subsequent viewings, the nuances of the characters and the actors’ fine performances were more noticeable and my appreciation for the movie continues to grow with every additional viewing. You owe it to yourself to see one of the best movies of 2009.