He’s one of America’s finest directors, but his previous film, Miami Vice (2006), was a huge disappointment. So, how has the collaboration of Michael Mann with two of the younger generation’s leading actors, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, worked out in Public Enemies (2009)?
In all fairness, both Bale and Depp also have some explaining to do for their own recent work – Bale for the really rather bad Terminator: Salvation (2009) and Depp for his somewhat off-the-boil efforts in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009).
But you can rest easy with Mann’s latest – adapted by the director, Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennet from Bryan Burrough’s weighty-sounding tome Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, the film emerges as an immaculately researched, restrained but powerful examination of the life and crimes of John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934) who was a daring, flamboyant but also very dangerous bank robber in the midwestern US during the early 1930s. While idolized by some at the time as a modern-day Robin Hood, he was nevertheless responsible for the murder of several law-enforcement officers during his short-lived reign – he robbed some 25 banks and four police stations, and escaped from jail twice. A key figure in the so-called ‘Public Enemy’ era (1931-35), the exploits of Dillinger (Depp) are shown in the film as being key to the development of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
And it is this that forms the story’s core – Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the hard-jawed, no-nonsense hot-shot drafted by the founder of the fledgling FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), to bring Dillinger down.
Benefiting from immaculate attention to period detail, with a script that simply crackles, Public Enemies nevertheless emerges as rather more than a very good excuse for Depp and Bale to look immaculate in period costume and exchange meaningful glances. Instead, what we have thanks to solid characterizations from all concerned (including the always-excellent Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s girl, Evelyne ‘Billie’ Frechette) is a genuinely thrilling, moving look at what drives perpetrators and pursuers, and the price that must always be paid on both sides of that particular coin.
In addition, the sense of impending violence hangs over the film like a pall, and, thankfully, one of Miami Vice‘s very few redeeming features, the electrifying gun battles, have been skillfully transposed to a 1930s setting, and are no less harrowing for that. There’s still perhaps a sense of the leads being somewhat on autopilot, but this nevertheless comes heartily recommended.