Set in America in the 1930s, against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Public Enemies portrays the bold activities of celebrity bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the attempts by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, Terminator Salvation) to bring him to justice. FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, Watchmen) may have labelled Dillinger a public enemy but Dillinger’s charisma and popularity meant the FBI had to also fight him on the PR front. The battle between the public enemies Dillinger and straight-laced Purvis, whose profile inspired the look for Dick Tracy, is therefore classic material for director Michael Mann. Mann’s Heat (1995) is a modern crime film masterpiece about a professional criminal and a brilliant detective who are pitted against each other. Heat combined everything you could want from such a film with its strong characters, intriguing psychology, compelling story and breathtaking action scenes. It therefore makes absolute sense that Mann was drawn towards the great real life crook-versus-cop story that he depicts in Public Enemies.
Johnny Depp’s performance in Public Enemies is magnificent, reminding us that Depp is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Depp portrays Dillinger with restraint; contrasting his public showmanship with his private doubts. Unfortunately none of the other actors really get to shine to the same degree as Depp does. Both Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), who plays Dillinger’s girlfriend, are excellent actors who deliver excellent performances in Public Enemies but their characters are underdeveloped. Mann doesn’t do nearly as good a job at presenting all his characters as fully rounded entities as he did in Heat, let alone coming close to replicating the dynamics of the criminal/cop duality.
Characters come and go in Public Enemies without the audience ever caring too much about them or even noticing that they are gone. It is tempting to defend this aspect of Public Enemies on the ground that this is an inherent problem due to the nature of the story. However, the 2008 French films L’instinct de mort (a.k.a Public Enemy Number One (Part 1)) and L’ennemi public n°1 (Mesrine: Part 2 – Public Enemy #1) by director Jean-François Richet about France’s 1960s public enemy Jacques Mesrine, are more segmented and cover a greater time period than Mann’s film yet still manage to create more empathy from the viewer for all the many minor characters.
As with Collateral and Miami Vice, Mann has once again filmed with HD digital and the results are initially jarring considering that so many 1930s gangster films have such a distinctively cinematographic look that only actual film stock can deliver. Having said that, visually Public Enemies is very good even if the night scenes are too grainy and Mann needs to show more restraint with his use of handheld filming. There are some thrilling shootouts, jailbreaks and chase sequences in Public Enemies and the production design, which incorporates actual locations, is beautiful. Mann also has a distinctively, almost poetic, way that he films and records the sound of blazing weaponry and the gun play in Public Enemies will not disappoint.
Public Enemies is just not quite the sum of all its parts. It’s overlong and too many narrative strands contain little purpose. Nevertheless, it is a film that gets better as it progresses and the climatic scenes suitably pack an emotional punch. Public Enemies is a good film but considering the talent working on it, it is not unfair to say that it really should have been a better film.