This is one I’d been looking forward to. Maybe it’s just a “guy thing,” but apart from the rather limp “Ali” and the disappointing “Miami Vice,” I think Michael Mann’s movies are, as the kids would say, the bomb. One of the most technically accomplished filmmakers around, Mann has an eye for the visual, an ear for the streets, and an intuitive understanding of the psychological mindset of both lawman and criminal unparalleled among today’s A-list Hollywood directors. “Public Enemies” looked like a winner from the get-go, with a top-notch cast, great historical backdrop, and a talented team behind the camera lead by Mann and his gifted cinematrographer, Dante Spinotti.
The results were everything I’d been hoping for and then some. As with “Miami Vice,” Mann drops us right into the middle of the action in “Public Enemies” with some very brief introductory exposition followed by an intense jailbreak sequence that puts the pedal to the metal right off the bat, and once Mann’s got his foot pressed down hard on the accelerator, he seldom lets up.
The movie focuses on just a brief period of legendary bank robber John Dillinger’s life, from his absolute pinnacle to his eventual end, and while Mann doesn’t give us much by way of detailed background involving any of his characters, he smartly trusts his actors to convey that information to us and for the most part they deliver the goods and reward his faith in them.
Johnny Depp is out of this world as Dillinger, the screen’s coolest outlaw since Clint Eastwood’s Josey Wales. He’s a man of thoughtful action who’s always two steps ahead of everyone else, sometimes even himself. It’s the most intense and charismatic performance of Depp’s career, and he effortlessly conveys the charm and nonchalance that made Dillinger a folk hero in his time while giving hints at a raging cauldron boiling underneath the surface at all times. Dillinger’s life was a tightrope act, and Depp reminds us of that with every word and action.
Marion Cotillard is a stunning beauty who took the film world by storm with her portrayal of Edith Piaf in “Ma Vie En Rose.” She’s terrifically believable as Billie, a girl with a hard past and little to dream of in the future who’s suddenly whisked off into a world of dangerous excitement when she meets Dillinger. The chemistry between herself and Depp is palpable and even the most jaded audience member will feel that even though these two just met and hardly know each other, their love is a smoldering fire that threatens to burn them both, but that they can’t turn away from. While one can plausibly argue that Cotillard is, if anything, underutilized here (and leaving an audience wanting to see more of a compelling character is a constant undercurrent in Mann’s working going all the way back to Brian Cox’s superb, and agonizingly short, turn as Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter), what cannot be denied is that her appearance in this film represents a second consecutive major international casting coup for Mann, hot on the heels of his landing Gong Li in to play the nominal female lead in “Miami Vice.”
Billy Crudup has a small amount of screen time as J. Edgar hoover, but he makes the most of it, portraying the paranoia, desperation for acclaim, and quiet ruthlessness that would consume him in his later years in their earlier, nascent stages with subtlety and intelligence. There’s no doubt in the viewer’s mind that Hoover will develop into a monster as his power grows over time.
The only somewhat disappointing turn in Christian Bale as G-man Melvin Purvis. He’s a stereotypical straight-shooting flatfoot who displays little of anything beyond an Elliot Ness-type caricature—plus his accent isn’t too terribly believable. Not a rotten performance, but nothing special, either.
On the technical side, while I’m not too crazy about movies shot on high-def video and transferred to film (a technique Mann also used on “Collateral” and “Miami Vice”), I have to begrudgingly admit that it works here. This is a movie that drops you right into the middle of the action, and the crystal clarity of high-def combined with cinematographer Spinotti’s frequent use of hand-held and unconventional angles does a fantastic job of making the viewer a part of the action rather than just an observer. The muted color palette Mann uses throughout also captures the feel of popular psychological preconceptions of the Depression era and adds an extra layer of ambiance to the proceedings.
All in all, “Public Enemies” is one to put on your must-see list, and represents something of a return to form of an American cinematic archetype that has been sadly missing lately—the outlaw as folk hero. While Mann has always excelled at creating sympathetic and believable villains, in the past the editorial viewpoint of his films has always favored the lawmn in the end. Not so here. This time there’s no doubt the good guys and vice versa, as we’ve got a man of the people bank robber who only wants the bank’s money, not yours, up against ruthless G-Men who will beat, torture, and kill anything in sight if it means getting their man. In an entertainment environment where film and TV cops are always good and any shortcuts or abuses they partake in are always shown as well-meaning and just, it’s both a refreshing—and necessary—change of pace. The heroic outlaw is as American as apple pie and on this July 4th, I’m glad to see it make its return after far too long an absence.