There are certain films that you see announced, subsequently chronicled in their making and then given trailers prior to release that, when you actually see them, they are completely and totally what you had expected to see from start to finish. Public Enemies is, and note this is not wholly negative, exactly what you would expect a John Dillinger biopic directed by Michael Mann to be.
The film is extremely well made, professionally told in terms of story and character, contains a host of excellent performances, not least Johnny Depp in the lead role, and entirely hits all the markers you would expect that it would. While that means that any expectations you have had for the movie are likely to be met, it does mean that nothing is exceeded.
The film follows John Dillinger (Depp) from a blistering opening of his breaking cohorts out of prison through to his eventual demise outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. In between we witness his bankrobbing ways, see his Robin Hood qualities played to the extreme and experience him falling in love with Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette and finally seeing his time pass as other forms of criminal begin to usurp his place. This is all juxtaposed with a team of agents from the then-burgeoning FBI, led by Billy Crudup’s J Edgar Hoover at the top and Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis on the ground, who are trying to catch Dillinger and his gang, along with the other loosely associated gangsters around during the era.
No doubt here that the two key players in the film, Depp playing Dillinger and Michael Mann behind the camera, are great at what they are doing. From interviews that Depp has given promoting the film, he seemed to identify with those Robin Hood qualities of Dillinger – robbing banks during a period when foreclosures and collapses were commonplace in the financial world – and the film does not skimp on portraying Dillinger not so much as anti-hero, but as purely a hero. The film does seem to lack a discernable villain, even if Crudup’s slimy take on Hoover comes close and Stephen Graham’s somewhat-garbled rat-a-tat accent as Baby Face Nelson provides the film with at least one unfeeling gangster.
The problem in portraying Dillinger in this way is that you don’t end up grasping the kind of depth that would be needed from a character like that. Depp plays him very much in hero mode, meaning that an uncomfortable feeling seems to dominate the majority of the film in which the audience is being urged to not only try and identify with this bank robber, but to like and support his actions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this irresponsible on the part of the portrayers, but this seems to lose the film some traction in trying to get the audience to work harder to understand why he is so attractive to them. Depp plays him with almost too much charisma, too much likeability that you completely forgive any actions he takes – the most notable scene for this portrayal is during the first bank heist we see in which Dillinger takes captive a young female clerk and a manager from the bank. While they are awaiting their getaway, Dillinger gives the young girl his coat to keep her warm in the finest tradition of the gentleman robber. The problem is that we just don’t get any sense of weight in those bank robbery scenes that what he is doing is wrong and that we should question why we are behind him.
The other fault of the film is that it never strays from the traditional problems which hit biopics. Mann has managed to make a really good biopic in the past with Ali which, although certainly not a revolution in biographical filmmaking, made the wise choice to focus on only a small part of Ali’s life. This film does that to an extent, but it perhaps attempts to provide a little too much of Dillinger’s life and may have been a more focused and probing work had it been broken in two, giving Mann and the writers a chance to explore Dillinger’s character a bit more and give a portrayal of the man which doesn’t stray into cliche or basic biography channel fact-spotting.
None of this though is to suggest that the film is bad. It is expertly made and contains, during a shoot out in the woods towards its conclusion, at least one astounding scene. That scene plays to many of Mann’s action strengths, cutting out all other noise beyond the blast of the guns and, as was the case in Collateral and in Heat, the scene is rendered incredibly compelling. The cinematography style of the film, overseen by long-time Mann collaborator Dante Spinotti, mixes grained and washed colours with digital video. Many have felt it to be too much of a conscious decision, hurting the overall experience by drawing attention to itself. I would probably agree with that on principal, but it never prevented me from being visually drawn in.
There are a host of very good scenes surrounding this and some nicely-judged supporting performances, most notably from Jason Clarke as Red Hamilton and from Crudup’s Hoover in a smaller role. Cotillard doesn’t really get enough to do but she and Depp forge a strong relationship and chemistry on screen which means the relationship doesn’t just feel shoehorned in.
Christian Bale, whose star seemed unassailably on the rise, is pretty meaningless in this, giving perfectly passable turn as Purvis but, in fairness, trying to do quite a lot with very little. Purvis, who leads the Chicago office’s chase of Dillinger, was surely a much more interesting man that is portrayed here but that isn’t just not explored, it’s not really even hinted at. That lack of a tangible conflict between Dillinger and Purvis does mean the film suffers somewhat in its central battle. When the two meet following the first capture of Dillinger, its hardly like watching De Niro and Pacino in Heat.
Public Enemies seems, on paper anyway, to be a great conceit and match for its director. Yet this feels decidely hollow, a well-made but episodic depiction of a man whose life was surely much more interesting, multi-faceted and singular than this film ever indicates.
MOD RATING: Watchable but hollow, big on the basic elements of expert storytelling, lacking anything beyond pure technique.