The baddest asses to grace the silver screen this summer are not the CGI toys of Transformers or Terminator, but the flesh and blood, Tommy gun firing adversaries - John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) continues his reign as the king of crime drama with the superb “Public Enemies”. Set in the fourth year of the Great Depression, bank robbing gangsters have unleashed a torrent of crime and violence. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) decides to wage open war against the wave of criminality. Melvin Purvis has gained public fame as the agent who killed the infamous Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. Hoover taps Purvis to track down the most wanted man in America, Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger.
Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Dillinger is marvelous to behold. There is the ego and flair of a thrill seeking criminal, a hardened man living on the razor’s edge. But there is also a quiet, contemplative man who understands the nature of his crimes and is subdued by a tragic love. Dillinger’s romance with the stunning coat check girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), defines him as much as his guns. His need for her fuels his fierce loyalty and opens up chinks in what had been formidable personal armor. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, a dying accomplice tells him that he must let go. That he is good enough, smart enough to escape, but will surely be killed if he ever looks back for her. Depp is both the hero and the villain, an amazing performance from an actor that has given us so many unique characters.
Christian Bale, for all his tremendous star power and physical ability, has to be recognized as one of Hollywood’s best character actors. Here he plays a supporting role without missing a beat. Most actors of his stature could not sit by and watch Johnny Depp soak up the spotlight as the dashing gangster. Bale understands his place in this film perfectly. Melvin Purvis is not blinded by the glare of Dillinger. He is a lawman, who watches as colleague after colleague gets riddled with bullets by Dillinger and his gang. His mission is to catch him or kill him. And the stakes get higher as the crimes and bodies ring up. Bale is not doing an impression of Elliot Ness or other ‘G-Men’ we’ve seen in gangster films. Purvis has a steel demeanor, but is not unfeeling or cruel. His standout scene is one of pity, on a poor character tortured by his angry men. This show of kindness and humility exposes a subtle arc in Melvin Purvis. He is not so angry, or so driven to be as bloodthirsty as the men he chases.
Michael Mann’s attention to detail and innovative camera style is Oscar worthy in Public Enemies. The film is highly stylized, but not so much that it overtakes the story. Mann understands when the cup is full, he consciously draws back, so the points he wants you to focus on are recognized instantly. For example, the gun battles are loud and dirty. The film stock becomes grainier and we are thrust in the midst of confusing battle. Wounds are bloody, bystanders get killed. There is no poetic adoration of gun play, but the raw adrenaline of bullet chaos. Mann’s shooting style changes dramatically when Dillinger is the true center of attention. The press of the day made Dillinger a star when they had the chance to interact with him. These scenes are sumptuously photographed, with many visual elements – like flairs or popping flashbulbs, which put extraordinary focus on Depp’s face, his wry smile, as he poses for an adoring public. Lesser filmmakers don’t understand when and why to do something visually different. Michael Mann’s genius is that perfect melding of good writing and photography.
I love the fact that Public Enemies is not salacious. It would have been easy to have ridiculous, unrealistic shoot outs. There could have been cheesy one-liners, frivolous nudity, screeching car chases…but there’s not. The entire film kicks you in the balls with awesomeness, but is smart enough not to turn back and keep kicking you until you forget you’re being kicked. In an era of overdone, hype-driven event films, we get a spectacular crime drama that is action packed, well acted, and well written. Not to be missed in the theater, and be sure to go somewhere with good sound.