WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
Based on the eponymous book by Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies chronicles the exploits of legendary Chicago gangster John Dillinger, a dashing figure whose daring bank robberies both captivated and alarmed a Depression-era America devastated by widespread financial ruin. Director Michael Mann (Ali, The Insider) begins his narrative at Dillinger's career high-point, with the Indiana-born outlaw basking in his celebrity status as a Robin Hood figure.
But with Dillinger's growing fame comes increased scrutiny from law enforcement agencies particularly the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) and its ambitious chief, J. Edgar Hoover. Eyeing Dillinger's capture as an opportunity to boost his agency's profile, Hoover tasks elite agent Melvin Purvis with bringing the elusive gangster to justice.
WHO'S IN IT?
Toning down the often cartoonish mannerisms he exhibited in Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Johnny Depp exudes low-key charm and self-assuredness as Dillinger, a man clearly amused by his celebrity status but never consumed by it. Dillinger's audacity and fearlessness extend beyond the criminal realm, too, as evidenced when he pursues a beguiling coat-check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Initially appalled by Dillinger's aggressive advances, Frechette ultimately surrenders, becoming his loyal companion during his final days on the run.
As lawman Melvin Purvis, Dillinger's primary antagonist, Christian Bale provides a nice foil for Depp, though he ultimately isn't allowed enough screen time to fully develop his character. Bale's Purvis is straight-laced, intrepid and doggedly persistent, his efforts continually stymied by the sub-par talent and resources at his disposal. His complicated relationship with highly eccentric Bureau boss Hoover (played by a gleefully uptight Billy Crudup) begs for more development, but director Mann opts instead to focus more on the doomed love affair between Dillinger and Frechette. Pity.
Fans of Mann's action work in films like Miami Vice and Heat will revel in Public Enemies' elaborately staged shoot-out sequences, each of which is lent added intensity by cinematographer Dante Spinotti's use of high-definition digital video cameras.
But when the bullets aren't flying, Public Enemies is only intermittently interesting. Stars Depp and Bale both excel in their respective roles, but neither is allowed much room to venture beyond the tight constraints imposed by Mann, who clings stubbornly and disappointingly to type. Much more intriguing would have been for Mann to reverse the casting, with Bale playing the anti-hero and Depp as his straight-arrow pursuer. Alas, the director who convinced squeeky-clean Tom Cruise to play a villain (in 2004's Collateral) was not so ballsy this time around.
The same cautious, predictable approach to casting extends to the film's tone as well. Rather than deconstruct our culture's romanticized vision of Dillinger as a handsome populist hero, Mann adds to the gangster's puffed-up Robin Hood image, photographing Depp lovingly at every turn and filling the story with unsubtle nods to the character's altruistic side. It's a missed opportunity.
Mann has never been one for brevity, regularly churning out films that extend well beyond two hours in length. Public Enemies is no exception, clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Despite the ample running time he's allotted to flesh out his story, Mann fails to create any real attachment to his characters. For a movie with such a gifted cast, appealing subject matter and riveting action sequences, Public Enemies is oddly boring.
A chaotic nighttime sequence in which Purvis and his crew ambush Dillinger's forest hideout, only to become mired in a protracted and bloody gunfight, ranks with the very best of Mann's action work. If only the rest of Public Enemies were this thrilling.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Spinotii's superb camera work demands to be seen on the big screen, so slam a few Red Bulls and catch this one at the multiplex.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.