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.