Michael Mann has worked with some of the best actors in the business — Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, Tom Cruise in Collateral, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, Russell Crowe in The Insider, and now Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in his latest gangster-drama Public Enemies. Is this his greatest collaboration, or, indeed, his greatest movie? Well, no, but it's nonetheless a solid entry in his body of work; a competent, compelling accomplishment that rings true and feels real from start to finish.
Depp plays John Dillinger, one of America's most notorious criminals and bank robbers. Dillinger and his gang of friends regularly rob banks throughout the country in the midst of a booming crime wave in 1930s America. Heading up the investigation to bring him down is FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Bale), who is chosen specifically by J. Edgar Hoover as the man to get the Public Enemy Number One.
Usually opting for the more stately, structured motion picture, here Mann chooses for a digital and often hand-held style of camera work. One could argue that shooting the film in this way doesn't suit the classy '30s time period, and outside looking in, that appears to be the case. However, in context of the film it completely works, giving the piece a raw, realistic, feel, and putting us right in the thick of the action and the drama.
What Mann shows is that he entirely understands how much of a notorious figure John Dillinger really was. Much like train robber Jesse James, Dillinger was almost a hero to the people, even in spite of the publicly reckless and dangerous acts that he committed. Depp plays the man as cool and collected, a man who even in the midst of a furious shoot-out knows what he's doing. And crucially, Depp never goes over-the-top with the role.
Bale's appearance in the film marks his second role in one of this summer's blockbusters, the first being Terminator: Salvation. That machine filled world wasn't one which called for Bale's true acting talent, and even if Public Enemies is obviously far more about acting, the role of the committed Purvis doesn't bring out his best, either. This is Depp's movie, with Bale very much playing second-fiddle, and even the fair amount of screen time given to him doesn't change that. Depp does all the heavy-lifting, which is fair considering the movie is all about his character and no one else. The spotlight is always on Depp, even when he's not on-screen.
Even if Depp is kept in mind pretty much all the time, there's something to be said for the supporting performances. They are enjoyable in that they jab in and out when needed. The likes of Stephen Dorff, David Wenham, James Russo, Billy Crudup and Stephen Graham all provide fantastic support to highlight Depp even more than he does on his own.
At a lengthy 140 minutes, Public Enemies may stretch the average moviegoer who is looking for nothing but gunplay, but even at that length, the film is still bursting at the seams with details. The sheer depth of the piece should find similar filmmakers green with envy. It may take a few viewings to fully observe what Mann has presented us with here, and so for the first watch it's best to just let it all wash over you and to enjoy the thrills and drama it offers.
There's a lot going on in Public Enemies, but Mann covers all the bases with great aplomb. I admit that for some people the thrills related to the crime aspects (the bank robberies in particular) may overshadow the drama, but I found the film dealt with both aspects with equal success. The bank robbery scenes are very well done, Mann spends enough time with them (after all, that's what Dillinger did best) but stops short of wallowing in them. Mann knows how to choreograph an action scene, and there's one forest action sequence in particular that rivals his genius shoot-out sequence in Heat. The scene here provides a fine balance of drama and thrills, excitement and tension, which is pretty much the full package as modern crime/gangster films go.
Elegant, classy cinematography can be found here from Dante Spinotti, who marks his fifth collaboration with Mann. In spite of its rugged, rough-around-the-edges style and because of the digital and hand-held camera work, Spinotti gives the film that much needed sophistication.
Where I felt Public Enemies skips a beat is in the side storyline of Dillinger and his girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The inclusion of the relationship between the two, particularly the fact that it just comes in from nowhere, feels a bit rushed and unfinished. Billie is the catalyst for much of Dillinger's actions ("Sooner or later she will go to him, or he's gonna come for her," Bale's Purvis confidently states at one point), but the emotional hook never quite is enough to support the thread. The film relies on that emotional connection, and since it's not entirely there, the piece feels a bit cold in its conclusion.
But in spite of that one misstep (which in its entirety doesn't amount to anything too damaging), Public Enemies is a brilliant piece of modern crime filmmaking from one of the best in the business. The movie is raw yet sophisticated with an equal dose of thrills and drama, and features a superb performance from the ever-impressive Depp. Michael Mann's best work may still be Heat (which this actually feels like a period version of in certain ways), but Mann can rest assured that with Public Enemies he has continued to prove just how good he really is as a director.