When I first heard that a movie was coming out called Public Enemies, I initially thought it was going to be a remake of the 1931 James Cagney gangster film The Public Enemy. Turns out I was wrong, but there is a connection between that film and this new film. It is not quite a direct connection, more of a relation, but it is there. This new film centers on the couple of years when John Dillinger was active and terrorizing banks while running circles around the FBI, and it just so happens that Dillinger was a fan of gangster pictures and was likely a fan of this particular film. In any case, there is nothing to directly to connect the old Cagney flick and the new Depp flick, although I guess a case could be made about both having top flight actors of their respective generations in the lead.
The first trailer for Public Enemies had me hook, line, and sinker. From the use of music, to the charismatic presence of Johnny Depp, to the determined visage of Christian Bale, to the authentic looking sets, it looked like a movie that was determined to hit all of the right notes. It doesn't hurt that Michael Mann is the man behind the camera. And while I am not a fan of all his films, he has a certain way of bringing a scene to life and making the locations into characters as as integral as the actual actors.
Back in the 1930s, gangsters were a different breed than they are today. Back in the day, gangsters were sort of celebrities as they stuck it to the man, acting in Robin Hood type ways (albeit a bit more self-serving). Therefore, their histories have been somewhat rewritten over the years, much like the outlaws of the Wild West. So, I was sort of expecting a romanticized view of John Dillinger's escapades as he out-duels the law and Melvin Purvis. You know, robbing banks, engaging in shoot-outs, getting the girl, the whole nine yards.
Director and co-writer Michael Mann and writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, working from a novel by Bryan Burrough, have taken the story and boiled it down to its essence. It is not the story the audience necessarily wants, but it is the story that Mann wants to tell, avoiding the expected to focus on the story. The result in this case is a tale that strips away the character's romanticism (although it is still there), giving us the character of legend without the legend. It is a story that gives you the pieces upon which the legend can be built.
The movie begins with John Dillinger's (Johnny Depp) daring escape from prison and subsequent desire not to go back and live in the moment. He returns to Chicago where he has bought himself something of a safe haven. He and his crew terrorize local banks, taking them for all they can get, all while living it up with the nightlife. They were like rock stars, doing their thing with very little fear of retribution, although there is always a certain edge, a distinct danger that things could go wrong. But they scarcely paid it any mind, knowing their skills would take them as far as they wanted.
Things begin to pick up when Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is put in charge of the Chicago field office by J. Edgar Hoover, who is attempting to get the FBI off the ground. It is thought that if public enemy number one, Dillinger, is brought to justice, it would go a long way towards getting the agency the backing it needs to be successful.
Purvis is straitlaced and serious, and always gets his man.He sets about putting his G-men to work in an effort to get Dillinger and all his accomplices. However, the story is not really about him, despite his importance to how it plays out. It puts a bit of a clamp on Bale's performance, which is more or less one note, yet still highly effective.
Public Enemies is based on history, but is not a slave to it. Watching this film will give you an honest overview of the era and how things played out; just do not trust it as a definitive source. There are factual errors that I will not go into here, as neither this review nor this film is about being a historical document. It certainly aims to be authentic to the period and motives of the characters, but that is about it.
This movie is a cross between a mainstream picture and an arthouse film. It has the big name stars, it has the big name performances, but it also refuses to follow mainstream movie conventions. Like I mentioned earlier, the story is told on its own terms. We get to see Dillinger in action, robbing banks, not letting weak members of the crew take him down, always getting what he wants, including the woman who catches his eye, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Theirs is a non-traditional relationship: he wants someone she can protect; she is vulnerable and needs someone to protect her. They are never really a couple, so much as a complete set of needs. It is interesting to watch their interactions, and there is an interesting dynamic as he courts her all the way through what happens at the end (I cannot tell you).
Michael Mann has meticulously crafted, showing only what needs to be seen. There are no overtones of niceties: Dillinger is never made out to be a nice guy, or a good guy, and the same goes for Purvis. It is rather refreshing to see a movie portray characters in a way that seems real rather "movie real."
The performances are fantastic all around. There is a brutal honesty to them as they go about their business. Johnny Depp leads the way with a charismatic performance that really draws you in. You may not necessarily like him, but you will admire the way he plays the role, and it is impossible to take your eyes of him. Christian Bale feels a little but like stunt casting as Purvis, considering how one note the character is, but at the same time his presence adds a little more weight to the pursuit of Dillinger. And Bale brings a distinct intensity to the role that focuses the pursuit plot within the story. Then there is Marion Cotillard; she brings an exotic beauty to the role plus an emotional vulnerability that really pays off in a powerful way.
Bottomline. This is not what I expected, and in a way I am glad that it isn't. It is a solid movie with great tension, excellent performances, and an eye for detail. It strips away the romance and leaves the cod underbelly of the legend exposed to the harsh light of day.