21 Nov 2009
After giving us the likes of Heat, Manhunter and Thief, Michael Mann returns with another saga that takes place on both sides of that thin blue line that keeps society from descending into chaos. Ironically arriving in the midst of a global recession, Public Enemies breathlessly takes us through two years of the Great Depression in the company of John Dillinger, an American bank robber, folk hero, and according to the director of the burgeoning Federal Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar Hoover, Public Enemy number one. Leading the manhunt to catch him is the obsessive Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). This tension-filled tale of fear and desire may sound quintessentially Mann, and much of it is, but much of it represents a major departure for the Chicago-born filmmaker. As a movie-experience, this cannot rival Heat or The Insider, his two back-to-back masterpieces. Not all of Public Enemies works, some characters are disappointingly underdeveloped and it misses an opportunity to say something profound about the circumstances that created men like Dillinger (the Depression is merely a backdrop to the events of the film, and given its stunning use of digital technology the film is something of an anomaly, a hyper-modern period film), but when it does work, there is simply no-one better than Mann.
Public Enemies opens with Dillinger escaping from prison, and Depp dominates much of the film from that point onwards, in spectacular fashion. Long an actor I have admired almost in spite of his performances, it is refreshing to see him take on a role worthy of his abilty. His Dillinger is not a cartoonish villain steeped in the lore of gangster melodrama, but rather an extremely cold and isolated man all too aware of his own celebrity and the death sentence attached to it. He plays Dillinger with a breezy fatalistic quality, never more apparent than in the bound to become legendary sequence where he visits the “Dillinger Room” at the Chicago police department and takes a rather leisurely look around, failing to be recognised while he does so. As a character he is something of an enigma within Mann’s cinematic body of work; traditionally his villains are cerebral, obsessive men who seem to gleam almost as much satisfaction from the planning and execution of their crimes than from the financial rewards, but Dillinger views his crimes as a means to an end and nothing more. Dillinger is an extra-ordinary bank robber, one to whom even a trip to the movies involves him squirming awkwardly in his seat as his image is plastered across the screen in a newsreel (“He could be sitting right next to you!”) yet you believe he’d trade it all in an instance if he could escape with Billie. When compared with the bitter relationships and broken homes that populate the rest of Mann’s career, Dillinger is truly a romantic. As he stands and watches Billies arrest he starts following the police car containing her down the street, gun in hand, oblivious to the agents surrounding him. It is a revelation to see a Mann character act so selflessly; De Niro would have been halfway to Mexico before giving her a second glance. This romantic sensibility is the big difference between Public Enemies and his other films though. If Heat gave us the pathos of twilight, then Public Enemies is the joy of a sunrise. Not only is it a film in love with its two lead characters, more importantly, it is in love with the art of film itself.
A 1930s period piece shot with stunning clarity and style, not to mention modernity, this is Bonnie and Clyde for the Youtube generation. Make no mistake, this is a bold work-of-art. For years now Mann has aligned himself with other visionaries like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan who are eager not just to entertain us, but to change the way movies look and all it takes is a quick glance at Public Enemies, particularly the incomparable siege at Little Bohemia Lodge where gangsters and G Men shoot it out in the dark, to see just how successful he has been. Public Enemies is certainly a movie for the eye, and not the head. This is not a deep psychological study of the difference between cops and robbers, but that is not to its detriment. Mann has made that film before, many times, so why should we resent him flexing different muscles this time out? Words may not be its strong suit, (although the emotive final scene between Mann regular Stephen Lang’s Texas Ranger Charles Winstead and Billie goes someway to redressing the balance) but in a film with this many fedoras, smart suits and Tommy guns, you’d have to be blind not to get some enjoyment from it.
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Channing Tatum
Runtime: 134 minutes (approx.)
Release date: 2 November 2009