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.