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Why do we always go for the bad boys? Is it the thrill of danger, the excitement of living on the edge, or simply that we’re always going to be drawn to the one who looks like Johnny Depp? Whatever the reason, Public Enemies ensures that we fall for the consummate bad boy — bank robber John Dillinger.
Director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) has sculpted a wonderful period piece about Dillinger, once known as Pubic Enemy No. 1 and heralded as the biggest threat against America by the nascent FBI. In the early 1930s, when the Great Depression was in full swing, Dillinger was the Robin Hood of bank robbers — he would take from the banks, but not the people in the bank (fuzzy math, it would seem). Together with his merry band of bank robbers, Dillinger made a mockery of J. Edgar Hoover and his G Men as they stole their way into the hearts of many Americans.
But in Mann’s script, co-written with Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett, Dillinger isn’t just a crook, he’s a lover too. Public Enemies is far from a heist film, in fact the actual robberies are but a small fraction of the story. Instead Mann focuses the camera on two relationships in Dillinger’s life — his girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the man tasked with bringing him in, dead or alive. To watch the film, you would think that Dillinger and Billie were the Romeo and Juliet of the Depression, and that Dillinger and Purvis were Moby-Dick and Captain Ahab.
Despite the amazing work done to recreate the 1930s, Public Enemies is largely going to succeed based on Depp’s performance. The star plays Dillinger as a cocky, cool customer who doesn’t doubt for a minute that he’s in complete control of every situation. He’s the original smooth criminal. Depp infuses enough self-assurance into Dillinger that you almost believe he is going to make it. It’s the very definition of hubris, but it comes second to his sexy swagger.
When Depp’s Dillinger is compared to Bale’s performance as Melvin Purvis there’s little competition. Purvis’ journey on the heels of Dillinger’s gang is a captivating one, as the once-golden child flounders and makes mistakes in his eagerness to catch the robbers and suck up to Hoover. Yet Bale is clearly giving the lesser of the two performances in the film. As in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, he resorts to lowering his voice to a near whisper and filling it with gravel when he’s trying to be serious and stern. This doesn’t give his character gravitas, it gives the impression that he only has one note and it’s off-key.
For all the cat and mouse play in the film, the shared screen time between Depp and Bale is brief. While this moment could have been the pinnacle of the film, it’s merely one more scene. The verbal warfare between the two is fast and sharp, but don’t expect lightning to strike when the two charged actors come face to face. Depp is much stronger opposite Cotillard, from their first moment together to her teary good-bye.
Aside from one protracted gunfight scene in the woods, there are few action peaks or valleys in the film. For the most part, Mann’s story is a slow burn that sustains its low heat but rarely sears. It’s a touch too long at times with not all the subplots fully integrated into the larger story, but Public Enemies is nonetheless an achievement.
Mann’s use of hand-held cameras in the opening scenes is a little too jarring and delays one’s ability to dive fully into the film, but it’s a problem that is fixed quickly.
Between its critique of the techniques used by law enforcement and by aggrandizing the actions of outlaws, Mann’s recreation of 1930s America is both romantic and dangerous. He takes great liberties in rewriting the story to be more romantic and more compelling, but it’s a movie not a history lesson, and in this case it’s better that fiction trumps fact. Public Enemies is a thoughtfully planned caper and thanks to Mann’s determination and attention to detail, he gets away with it.