‘Public Enemies’ – Michael Mann and Johnny Depp Take on John Dillinger

“The reason you caught me, Will, is we’re just alike! You want the scent? Smell yourself!”

-Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) speaking to Will Graham (William Peterson) from a scene in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter.”

After all these years, Michael Mann still has a strong fascination with criminal masterminds and those who spend their careers chasing them down. Film after film, he has spent his time delving into how the “good guys” and “bad guys” feed off of one another, and if they could not exist without one another. “Public Enemies” reminded me a lot of “Heat” in that respect, and it shares a lot of similarities as it looks at the famous John Dillinger, played here by Johnny Depp, and at the man sent to catch him, Melvin Purvis. It’s not as great a film as “Heat” was, but it is still a masterful piece of filmmaking and the kind we have come to expect from director Michael Mann.

“Public Enemies” starts with Dillinger and his friends breaking out of a maximum-security prison, something which seemed easy to do back in 1933. It turns out Dillinger is actually quite the celebrity and can find safe havens in one town or another. To many he is seen as a hero, and to others he is nothing more than a criminal. But as Dillinger continues to rob more banks, the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup) become increasingly persistent in bringing him to justice. In the process, Hoover turns to Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) who subsequently leads a manhunt to take down Dillinger, and in the process changes from the person he thought he could be to the one he is chasing after.

One thing which has not changed about Mann’s movies is he still knows how to stage one hell of a gunfight. Back in 1995, he gave us one of the greatest in Downtown Los Angeles with “Heat,” and he has lived in the shadow of that brilliantly staged moment ever since. Sure, he has choreographed gun battles every bit as effectively brutal like in “Collateral” and his film version of “Miami Vice.” In his films, you don’t just watch guns go off, you feel them going off. When a bullet hits a body, characters don’t just fall down like in an old western. Their bodies are forever shattered, and the wounds they carry last long after the end credits have finished. There are a lot of strong action scenes like this throughout “Public Enemies,” and each one is equally hair raising. While “Heat” may remain his masterpiece, his other works do not pale in comparison necessarily.

Having Johnny Depp cast as Dillinger must have seemed like a no brainer. They appear to share some similar tastes minus the heavy gunfire, given Depp’s previous reputation as a “wild boy:”

“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars… and you. What else you need to know?”

-Johnny Depp as John Dillinger from “Public Enemies”

Depp remains one of the best actors of his generation, and he has constantly challenged himself to where this particular role is no exception. Dillinger was a criminal celebrity, perhaps one of the first, and Depp effortlessly shows you how Dillinger made this seem possible. With his eyes, Depp can still seduce the most knowledgeable and naïve of women without even having to try too hard. The actor also clearly brings out the joy Dillinger gets out of life, and he also gets at the depth of pain he experiences as those closest to him leave him, cut him loose, or get killed.

As Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale delves into many of the same situations which haunted Bruce Wayne/Batman in “The Dark Knight.” Melvin starts off as a man who is dedicated to the law and follows the rules and regulations to the letter. But after some serious setbacks, Melvin finds he has to use different methods in order to get his man. These methods include acts and people which and who work outside of the law. In the process, he comes to see what he has to become in order to capture Dillinger. But unlike Bruce, Melvin may not be able to live with himself when this is all through. Bale pulls off a really solid accent while playing Melvin, and he has a much more nuanced character to play here than he did in movies like “Terminator Salvation.”

But the one performance I enjoyed most in “Public Enemies” was Marion Cotillard’s who plays Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette. Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar for giving one of the greatest performances of all time in cinematic history in “La Vie En Rose.” She shares great chemistry with Depp throughout, and she is delightful to watch as Billie is ever so quickly drawn into Dillinger’s dangerous world. Billie does sense the trouble which lies ahead, but everything happening is too exciting for her to pass up. Showing both fear and excitement in a film scene without words is easier said than done, and she pulls it off like it’s no big deal.

If there’s anything which takes away from “Public Enemies,” it is that it doesn’t delve as deeply into the characters’ lives as I had hoped it would. If anything, this film would have benefited more from a back story, especially for Dillinger as to why and how he became a bank robber. It was also said that Dillinger was a hero because the banks he robbed ended up freeing things up for those who were economically challenged because of the Great Depression. I would have liked to have seen more of this because Mann may have thought this was clear from the way regular people treat Dillinger, but it doesn’t feel like they have a good enough reason to. Had there been a little more depth to these characters, this could have been as great a movie “Heat.”

Still, “Public Enemies” is fine filmmaking and continues Mann’s theme of looking at how the line between cops and criminals is often blurred and how both are actually one and the same. You could almost call this “Heat” as a period piece. Mann makes you wonder if a criminal can ever find and hang onto a love despite their law-breaking nature, and if the cop can ever lead a normal life outside their career of going after the crook. From William Petersen trying to think like the killer in “Manhunter” to James Caan trying to leave a life outside of crime in “Thief,” it’s a thin line indeed. Perhaps Mann keeps pursuing this theme in hopes that there will be a tomorrow for characters like these regardless of their opposing natures. Maybe he will find the answer in a future motion picture, and hopefully we will not have to wait too much longer for such a cinematic work.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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