Review by Jack Foley
WITH an enviable track record that includes Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice, there’s no better person than Michael Mann to deliver the definitive story of John Dillinger. Having Johnny Depp play Dillinger is merely the icing on the cake.
Public Enemies is every bit as special as its set-up suggests. It’s a fascinating, emotionally complex and downright riveting insight into the rise and fall of one of America’s most notorious criminals.
Based on Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, the film chronicles Dillinger’s Depression era crime spree and how it brought about a change in tactics by the FBI.
Depp plays Dillinger, while Christian Bale plays FBI G-man Melvin Purvis, the man tasked with bringing him down. Star-studded support comes from the likes of Marion Cotillard as Dillinger love interest Billie Frechette, Stephen Graham as the psychotic Baby Face Nelson, Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd and Billy Crudup as J Edgar Hoover.
As ever with a Mann product, Public Enemies thrusts viewers into the middle of the action – in this case one of Dillinger’s most famous jailbreaks – and maintains the tension for the duration of its running time.
There are comparisons to Heat, of course, given the film’s focus on two driven men working on opposite sides of the law, as well as the fact that Bale and Depp only share one brief scene together.
But while Heat fully explored the emotional make-up of both characters, and attempted to mirror them, Public Enemies is much more concerned with Dillinger. And by doing so, he plays to the strengths of his talented leading man.
Depp effortlessly captures both the charisma that led many to dub Dillinger America’s Robin Hood and the inherent danger of a violent, unpredictable gangster. He is a complex individual… a man who is fully aware of what fate has in store for him, but who enjoys perpetuating his own myth.
Several scenes resonate, including a fantastic moment in a cinema as Dillinger is surrounded by an audience that’s asked to check if he is sitting among them, and a superb sequence in which he visits the police station and walks around the department examining the evidence that’s been compiled against him.
His romance with Billie Frechette is nicely played too, with Oscar-winner Cotillard striking suitably believable sparks off Depp, and lending the film its emotional heartbeat. Cotillard ensures audiences will feel the exhilaration and subsequent pain of a life on the run.
As with Collateral and Miami Vice, Mann has also chosen to shoot the film in his now trademark hand-held style using high definition cameras, which lends proceedings – and particularly the gunfights – an immediacy that makes the story all the more gripping.
While his decision to use as many real locations as possible, including the site of Dillinger’s most famous gunfight at Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin and the site of his death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, heightens the authenticity.
The gunfights and bank robberies are as brilliantly executed and blisteringly authentic as we’ve come to expect from Mann, with the Little Bohemia clash the pick of the set pieces.
There are minor criticisms, of course. Bale’s Purvis, while suitably intense and driven, could have benefited from more screen-time, as could the likes of Graham’s Baby Face Nelson and Crudup’s Hoover. Blink and you may miss Tatum’s Pretty Boy Floyd.
While the distortion of some historical fact may grate with anyone who has a firm grasp of the era (Nelson’s fate, in particular, stands out).
But all in all, this is intelligent, adult cinema that grips from start to finish. At a little under two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel long enough and is quite comfortably one of the year’s best movies.
Running time: 143mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: November 2, 2009
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Johnny Depp interview
- Marion Cotillard interview
- Michael Mann interview
- Christian Bale talks new projects
- View photos of Public Enemies
- Public Enemies poster gallery