MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Drama/Stars: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang, Michael Bentt, Stephen Graham, Jason Clarke, David Wenham, Spencer Garrett, Christian Stolte, Giovanni Ribisi, John Ortiz, Domenick Lombardozzi, Bill Camp, Rory Cochrane, Richard Short, Carey Mulligan, John Michael Bolger, Branka Katić, Emilie de Ravin, Shawn Hatosy, Don Frye, Matt Craven, Channing Tatum, Lili Taylor, David Warshofsky, Michael Vieau, Casey Siemaszko, Adam Mucci, Leelee Sobieski, James Russo, Chandler Williams, John Hoogenakker/ Runtime: 140 minutes
I think it is quite safe to start this review off by saying that, more than anything else, iconic film helmer Michael Mann is the kind of director whose filmography, more or less, is one that is constructed around the narrative concept of the bond between a pair of adversaries. Indeed in Manhunter, a former Fed finds himself having to work with the serial killer who made him retire in order to nab another psychopath who might just be slightly more twisted than the one aiding him. In the crime epic Heat from 1995, we see as an obsessed cop tries to hunt down a masterclass criminal only to find when he’s actually face to face with the man that perhaps in another life they could easily have been dear pals. In The Insider from 1999, we see a corporate insider left with no choice, but going to an insightful reporter for aid even as the people who the reporter works for deal with this impending story in a way that really gives them both room to worry. In 2004’s highly underrated thriller Collateral, we see an amicable enough cab driver have to find a way to outsmart a ruthless and skilled assassin who wishes to make him a pawn in a night of pure terror. Heck even at the very beginning of Mann’s film helming career in 1981’s phenomenally well-made Thief, we see a master crook going up against a recently acquired handler due to the handler breaking the terms of their agreement only to learn the handler is a ruthless son of a gun whose only aim is for said master thief to continue pulling jobs for him until he either cocks up, is sent to jail, or killed whilst on the job thus causing our hero to have to take drastic steps in order to get out of the game once and for all let alone survive to see another day. With all of these riveting examples in mind, we now come to a perhaps lesser known entry in Mann’s filmography, and the slice of cinematic pie I am reviewing today, 2009’s Public Enemies and this is a rather distinct movie. That’s because while this movie does operate by and large with a lot of themes, bonds, and skirmishes that Mann has worked with time and time again, this is also a movie that works just as well as a riveting period drama as well as an engrossing look at not only the hunt for one of the more infamous outlaws in 20th century American history, but also a look at said outlaw’s attempts to avoid capture as well. Suffice it to say that despite being another entry in the subgenre known as cops and robbers from Mann, he also thankfully doesn’t make this into a carbon copy of Heat just set in the 1930s. Instead, Mann makes the brilliant choice to make this one into an analysis of a pair of distinct characters that, flaws aside, is both a fairly riveting and visceral yet also enjoyable enough viewing experience.
The plot is as follows: Public Enemies takes us back in time to the long gone year of 1933 where we see that the calamity known as the Great Depression, having completely and utterly annihilated the economy of the United States, has now begun taking a psychological toll on the majority of people to the point that it leaves them feeling no more than pain and agony. It’s also in these desperation-fueled days that we witness as John Dillinger, a man who is known all over the country for being a robber of banks, a vicious killer, and yet also a scheming and quite clever opportunist make his way to the Windy City aka Chicago with his gang in the aftermath of breaking them out of the slammer with the hope that the local mafia will keep them safe from the long arm of the law for a while. It is also during this time on the lam that we see Dillinger make the fateful choice to engage in a passionate romance with a beautiful coat checker by the name of Billie Frechette. Yet we see that trouble might be a’brewin on the horizon for our intrepid robber and his team to say nothing of others like them in the criminal element. This is because while Dillinger is in the process of seeking sanctuary, a solemn and quiet member of the already infamous Bureau of Investigation agent by the name of Melvin Purvis is approached and requested to bring down Dillinger by no less of an individual than Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover himself. This proves to be a bit problematic since Hoover is just as much of a schemer as the crooks he is trying to bring down, but Purvis decides to take the assignment on the condition that Hoover give him the chance to bring on a squad of highly skilled fellow operatives to assist him in his mission. Yet somehow we see that, through the utilization of (at the time) revolutionary investigative skills that nowadays seem part and parcel for the course, the dogged law enforcement officer is actually able to triumph in bringing Dillinger in….only for the local law enforcement to completely and utterly fail in keeping him imprisoned. Yet despite managing to get away fairly scot free, we see that Dillinger discovers his mafia pals have all but deserted him thus forcing him to depend only on himself and those loyal to him exclusively including his closest friend John “Red” Hamilton in order to have even a shot at surviving. Suffice it to say therefore that despite all of his cunning, all his tenacity, and all his skill, Dillinger’s days may at long last be finite as we see that both the FBI and the Mafia, afraid to death of all the heat from the Feds that Dillinger is bringing down on everyone in the criminal element, start getting closer and closer to at long last quite possibly putting Dillinger down for good.
Now I do have a fondness for what Michael Mann brings to the movies he works on, but I also understand that the aspects that make him an intriguing director also can be a source of extreme frustration. By that I mean the guy is one who wants to make sure his cast can do the things their characters do…..whilst also giving audiences little to no of the backstory the cast is given. Don’t get me wrong: I do feel that Mann believes he’s giving the audience enough information, but this points to a bit of a flaw in that he always tries to get the audience invested more so on a psychological level rather than on one made up of pathos. As a result, in the majority of Mann’s filmography we don’t get to really relate to or even care about the characters. Suffice it to say that with this movie, it’s more due to the performances of the cast rather than the work at the helm by Mann that you will find yourself caring about the people in this. I also find it intriguing that Mann has said that it was how Dillinger was viewed by many as a Robin Hood-type figure which intrigued him the most seeing as how there is not that much of that shown in this movie. I mean sure there are some moments, but by and large the movie never makes it clear why the common folk really admired this guy. Yeah I get how times are tough in this era, but honestly we get less of a picture of what Dillinger did for the everyday person and more of him just going around shooting and robbing people. Now when looking at things from an action perspective, we see Mann does at least give us some fairly riveting action beats in this. I mean sure the bank robberies here aren’t on the level they were in Heat, but they are still quite thrilling. Just as good though is the beginning prison break, the gun battle that goes down at the Little Bohemia Lodge, and Dillinger’s eventual fate which make for fairly riveting moments throughout the film. Finally, I know there are those who gripe about this movie being filmed in HD. In all fairness though doing so, side by side with the top-notch production work, really does enable the viewer to feel like you are in the era this movie takes place in. It’s just sad that we aren’t able to get as good of a handle on the people occupying the world as the world itself.
Now very much in the same vein that acting legends Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro were able to, I think it can safely be said that the dynamic duo that is Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are able to provide wonderful degrees of both subtlety and consideration to their respective parts that any issues one might have with Mann choosing to completely omit showing their respective origins is by and large a very moot point. I bring that up because Public Enemies is the kind of movie that drops you right in the middle of things whilst never really taking the time to pause and fill in the blanks. Rather, it makes you place your focus completely on the 2 men who are at the core of this saga since they are the element that the director cares the most about. Indeed it’s an intriguing direction in which to take a movie of this ilk and I’m sure there are those who most assuredly will cry foul. Be that as it may be, there is no denying that this creative decision is able to rivetingly make both Dillinger and Purvis into heavyweights in their respective corners who do the things they do not just because they are good at it. Rather, it’s because there is nothing else that they could see themselves doing. It is with that in mind that we see both men give us riveting yet also wonderfully sensitive and elegant work that permits them to all but become their respective parts. Thus as Dillinger, we see Depp is downright electric with a razor-sharp wit, bold mannerisms, and methodical flare-ups. Indeed Depp’s take on the infamous bank robber is wonderfully open and able to show love and loyalty yet not exactly showcased as the folk hero that so many during that era perceived him as. Rather, he’s the kind of guy who with even a glance could ensure your life had reached its premature end and his genuine motives are never ever in doubt. On the other side of the coin, we see that in the role of Purvis that Bale is able to give a low-key yet effective performance that seems to be a mix of solemn irritation and stoic determination. Yes his reserved demeanor in this could quite easily be misinterpreted as nothing more than indifference, but when looking into it further, you see that this was how the real guy actually was at times. Suffice it to say it’s another top-flight performance from an actor who, ever since he was a kid, has been one of the most transformative performers of his generation. As for their co-stars in this larger than life true crime saga, we see that Mann is able to get actors of some degree or another of noteworthiness to show up in a lot of small yet still quite effective roles with such examples being the delightfully intimidating Stephen Lang as a tough as nails agent brought in by Purvis to help bring down Dillinger, Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, the always dependable Rory Cochrane as Purvis’ partner on the case, Billy Crudup as a younger yet no less ambitious and sleazy Hoover than we usually get in movies about this era, the always delightful Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, and Stephen Graham who gives a top-flight turn as iconic gangster Baby Face Nelson among others. Suffice it to say that once again, issues with the rest of the movie aside, at least Mann is able to cast a phenomenal degree of talent to help try and make sure the film is able to work in front of the camera.
All in all I think it is quite safe to say that even though there are a quite a few different opinions that you may come to upon concluding this gangster slice of cinematic pie, I think it should not be denied that Michael Mann has at the very least managed to construct for movie goers with this film yet another iconic rival character analysis albeit one that deals with a pair of real life people and set during that intriguing time in United States history known as the Great Depression. Suffice it to say that yes this movie might not have much in the way of insightfulness or narrative context, but at least it makes up for that with wonderful and convincing work both behind and, especially, in front of the camera. Make of that therefore what you will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Public Enemies “09” a solid 3.5 out of 5.