Never has bank robbery looked so beautiful. In Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, each heist is an intricately choreographed dance of aggression, fear and violence that is always just about to disintegrate into chaos. These masterful action sequences would have been even better if we knew, or cared, a little more about the people who are enacting them. Unfortunately, Mann does not seem particularly interested in people, and the whole exercise of Public Enemies is a magnificent triumph of style over content.
The problem all begins with Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger, who looks down the road of bank heists toward either death or some kind of transcendence. He exercises the same kind of charisma on the media circus of the movie as he does on the cinema audience, but the nuts and bolts of his authority over his crew are never really addressed. Various hard cases from around the country all seem more than ready to take their lead from this soulful romantic with a Tommy gun.
At least Dillinger has style on his side, and after the addition of Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette as his love interest, he is irresistible. As an encouragement to live for the moment and damn all the rest, their romance is up there with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), though rather less convincing. Cotillard does more real acting in her few short sequences than is done in most of the rest of the film, managing to convey the vulnerability and pride of Dillinger’s girl, a waif blown about on the terrible whirlwinds of violence that rage around her.
While the members of Dillinger’s gang are a shadowy cast of figures who generally only acquire a personality moments before they die, the bunch of FBI agents under the lead of Christian Bale’s Special Agent Melvin Purvis are even more insubstantial.
DIRECTED BY: MICHAEL MANN
STARRING: JOHNNY DEPP (JOHN DILLINGER), CHRISTIAN BALE (MELVIN PURVIS), BILLY CRUDUP (J. EDGAR HOOVER), MARION COTILLARD (BILLIE FRECHETTE), STEPHEN LANG (CHARLES WINSTEAD), JAMES RUSSO (WALTER DIETRICH), JASON CLARKE (JOHN ‘RED’ HAMILTON)
RUNNING TIME: 140 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
The agents are portrayed both as violent and inept, and in many ways not very different than Dillinger’s various gang members. They operate against the background of J. Edgar Hoover’s attempts to build up the bureau into a modern technocratic agency. The politics that drive Purvis are dealt with in a cursory manner, a mere nod to the book on which the film is loosely based — Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 — and hint at a fascinating story behind Dillinger’s romancing and shoot-’em-up activities that was taking place in the corridors of power. Other tantalizing hints are given to the changing nature of organized crime at this time, with the powerful syndicates running numbers and other rackets distancing themselves from violent, attention-seeking robbers like Dillinger.
Purvis is deeply hampered by the lack of experienced muscle in his force, and this provides an opportunity for the introduction of some old-school lawmen, most notably embodied by the massive form and cold wise eyes of Stephen Lang, who plays Charles Winstead, a traditional lawman of the Texas Ranger stamp.
There are many gorgeous and hugely expressive images and sequences in Public Enemies. It has been widely commented that the digital format has a coldness that deprives Public Enemies of the lush colors often associated with such period pieces. Rather than weakening the film, this does much to undercut the exoticism of the 1930s setting, giving it a harder contemporary edge.