Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger was a charismatic criminal who lived for the moment, and whose lightning raids on financial institutions across Middle America made him a top law enforcement target. By robbing only banks and not everyday people, Dillinger became a bit of a folk hero to much of the downtrodden masses. And in todays recession-dampened days, you might think he could be so again.
Enter 62-year-old director Michael Mann who, over the past three decades, has directed some pretty remarkable motion pictures, ranging from The Insider to The Last of the Mohicans. Mann has a particular flair for capturing both sides of the law, most memorably in Pacino/De Niro collaboration Heat and also the Tom Cruise vehicle Collateral. By placing as much emphasis on character, technical details, procedure and plot as he did style and action, Mann has a reputation for delivering adult thrillers that are both exciting and intelligent.
Public Enemies is the story of John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp), the love of his life Frechette (played by La Vie en Rose star Marion Cotillard), and the FBI agent Melvin Purves who sets out to put him away (Christian Bale). Purvis initial attempts fail, leading him to a desperate course, orchestrating a few epic betrayals in order to put Dillinger behind bars.
And epic is the right word: Public Enemies is face-paced, well-acted and nearly two and a half hours long. Its also beautifully authentic: Nathan Crowleys production design, Elliot Goldenthals music score and Colleen Atwoods costumes create a detailed 1930s Middle America (captured to varying degrees of success by Dante Spinottis HD cinematography: while Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, there is only so much any DoP can do with the High Definition format. For every section that looks good, namely the night-time sequences, theres one lurking around the corner that looks like a $100 million YouTube video. Even after several years of use, these cameras are still not ready for prime time.)
But for all the technical brilliance on display here, there is something missing: namely a competent, developed screenplay. Written by Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman and Mann, the screenplay adaptation of Bryan Burroughs novel is dramatically inert and somewhat uneven. Enemies desperately wants to be a Depression-era version of Heat but it lacks the narrative foundation needed to do so. The characters lack depth, the story lacks structure, theres no dramatic buildup or tension, and the screen time between the two lead characters is far too lopsided to create an interesting dynamic.
Time is devoted more to Dillinger than Purvis in the first half, and yet we learn precious little about eithers background or history. The script also fails to set these two individuals on any sort of collision course in a way similar to the coffee shop meeting between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. When Dillinger and Purvis do have their initial encounter, the payoff is remarkably muted. The same goes for the big showdown at the end. Like many events in Public Enemies, it comes and goes. If Mann could infuse Miami Vice with depth, buildup and payoff, he certainly could have made it happen here.
The cast do the best they can. Depp is a fine Dillinger, displaying equal cockiness and confidence whether hes robbing banks, walking unnoticed through a police station (the best scene of the film) or winning over Cotillards Lady in Red. Oscar-winning Cotillard herself makes do with what is essentially a bimbo role. The romantic scenes between Dillinger and Frechette should be hot given the actors, but those come off lukewarm at best. Bales turn as Purvis is acceptable but unspectacular given his limited screen time and even more limited character development in the script. Supporting players Crudup and Stephen Lang fare much better as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and former Western lawman Charles Winstead respectively.
Despite the talent on display in front of and behind the camera, Public Enemies is a hit and miss affair. The Michael Mann we know and love is present thanks to the technical virtuosity and nicely-staged gunfights. But the merging of them with the script is no sure-fire success. Public Enemies is passable, at best.