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.
Despite its grandiose title and being based on a true story, American Gangster is not the definitive American gangster film. Only half the film concerns the gangster element, although it is the classic rise to power story through boldness, cunning and strategic brutality. The other half of the film is the archetypal story of an increasingly shunned cop who overcomes the odds to dispense justice. This aspect of American Gangster, plus its 70s New York and New Jersey urban settings, make it evoke The French Connection and Serpico more than The Godfather or Goodfellas.