By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald
Michael Mann's extraordinary Public Enemies is an unusual sort of gangster picture, a near-impressionistic recreation of the last year in the life of one of American history's most notorious bank robbers. The movie doesn't coddle to the viewer: Mann, further honing his emotionally cool aesthetic to a diamond-like hardness, doesn't trade in the conventions of biography. For those willing to invest in what he is doing, the rewards are plentiful.
Plunging into the action with no set-up, Public Enemies opens with John Dillinger's brazen orchestration of a prison break from the Indiana State Penitentiary in 1933. That sequence, shot with the same you-are-there verisimilitude Mann employs through most of the picture, gives you a quick sketch of the camaraderie and loyalty between Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his men, his place as the unquestioned leader of the gang and the profound pain he feels whenever one of them is felled by a lawman's bullet.
Those qualities, which are further explored as the movie progresses, are mirrored by the relationship between FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and his men, who are under considerable pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to apprehend Dillinger, dead or alive. Public Enemies is essentially a chase picture, centering on Purvis' dogged pursuit of Dillinger, who proves impossible to hold onto even after he's caught.
Mann has been intrigued by the ballet between the law and the lawless throughout his career, beginning with 1981's Thief, segueing into Miami Vice and continuing with the cool-as-ice epic Heat. In Public Enemies, Mann transplants that obsession to the Depression era, drawing parallels between Dillinger's gradual alienation from organized crime, where his headline-grabbing antics and antihero popularity served little purpose, and Purvis' increasingly obsessive quest to capture him, which more than once results in less-than-sound judgment on his part.
Depp's penchant for playing oddballs has made him something of a hermetic actor, but the Dillinger role frees something inside him, the way Sean Penn seemed energized by playing Harvey Milk. Mann isn't interested in a biographical recounting of Dillinger's life: Public Enemies, based on the scrupulously researched book by Bryan Burrough, provides surprisingly few details about who the man was or what formed him.
Instead, Mann is interested in burrowing deep inside Dillinger's psyche, primarily through the criminal's relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat-check girl who wins his heart at first sight. Their romance, which initially seems manufactured and improbable, gradually becomes the heart of Public Enemies, revealing the sincere passion lurking under Dillinger's bad-boy persona.
Depp's natural charisma is invaluable to the movie, and humanizes Dillinger by showing the ordinary man behind the extraordinary facade. By comparison, Bale's performance as Purvis is more limited, relegating the character to the cliché of incorruptible, unrelenting sheriff. But if the movie is emotionally lopsided in Dillinger's favor, Mann is careful not to sway the audience's sympathies too strongly in his direction by showing us the trail of bodies left in his gang's wake.
Every death in Public Enemies -- and there are a lot of them -- stings. Mann's emphasis on the value of human life adds a layer of suspense and excitement to the film's plentiful action sequences, the best of which is the FBI's raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin where Dillinger was holed up. The sequence, which marries the immediacy of Mann's high-definition digital photography with the connection the audience has built to the characters, is a hair-raiser, worthy of comparison to the bank heist from Heat (still Mann's finest hour as a choreographer of shoot-'em-up action).
If, by the end of Public Enemies, you have more questions than answers as to who John Dillinger was, the movie, along with Depp's tricky, elusive performance, leaves you feeling as if you had met him in the flesh. For all its genre trappings (the tommy guns everyone wields are as cool as the light sabers from Star Wars), Public Enemies is ultimately more of a character study than a rat-tat-tat action picture, a first-hand account of what it felt like to live moment-to-moment as Public Enemy No. 1, never thinking about tomorrow because that would mean dwelling on the inevitable.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Jason Clarke, Rory Cochrane, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang.
Director: Michael Mann.
Screenwriters: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman. Based on the book by Bryan Burrough.
Producers: Kevin Misher, Michael Mann.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 140 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, sexual situations, adult themes.
ohnny Depp stars as one of America's most notorious bank robbers. Photo: Peter Mountain/Universal Studios