The idea of outlawish movie star Johnny Depp playing sexy genuine outlaw John Dillinger might, at the outset, bring to mind one of Depp’s eccentric acts of magnetism: maybe the charm of Jack Sparrow plus the real-life chutzpah of his drug-dealer in Blow? Similarly, the intensity of Christian Bale seems like a natural fit for straight-arrow lawman Melvin Purvis, doggedly pursuing Dillinger like, you know, a cop a Michael Mann movie.
In Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Depp and Bale give typically strong performances, but without obvious fireworks. Depp’s Dillinger has confidence and style to spare, but he enjoys his Depression-era rock-star status quietly. He’s reckless in so far as he lives for the moment and spends that moment robbing banks, but he’s quick, smart, and ruthless, too, a match for the intrepid Purvis. Even Dillinger’s romance with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), while touching in its way, feels a little utilitarian; they don’t have much time to flaunt their doomed romanticism.
If Public Enemies lacks the iconic electricity of Mann’s seminal cops-and-robbers picture Heat, that’s because it builds on a tacit rejection of gangster movies—their glamor, their mythologizing, their epic sweep are all replaced by the ins and outs of bank robbery. Yet Mann isn’t exactly making a detective movie, either; the film often plays like a procedural without a lot of actual, detailed process. Instead, the actions of cops and robbers alike are distilled into movement. Dillinger robs a bank, flees, eludes the cops. The feds strategize, try to corner the gang, and nick a few in shoot-outs. When Dillinger does get himself caught mid-movie, he busts out of jail using a toy gun.
But while Mann eschews high opera, his movie is wonderfully cinematic, and electric all the same. His immediate, propulsive, yet often intimate images, shot on his beloved digital video, tell more story than the script. In the midst of break-outs and robberies, his ever-mobile camera will move in close to catch Depp or Bale in concentration; in Cotillard’s final scene, Mann lingers on her face with quiet devastation.
Mann often works under cover of darkness—his recent Collateral is entirely nocturnal—and indeed stages a bravura nighttime shoot-out in the woods in here, when Purvis and his men trail Dillinger and Babyface Nelson to a cabin hideaway. But much of Public Enemies takes place in the daylight—that’s when banks are open, after all—and Mann shoots his Midwestern exteriors with stark, sometimes desolate beauty, all white skies and open, dusty roads. After emerging dazed from the senseless overload of so many action movies, it’s a relief and then a delight to watch one where not only every shot makes sense, but most of them are plainly gorgeous, almost suitable for framing.
The movie has such visual acuity that you can watch it with the director’s commentary and not lose a beat, and not just because the director pretty much explains what’s going on in every scene. That frequent commentary weakness becomes an asset here; Mann, in his fitting Chicago accent, provides more backstory and history than the movie itself does. Anyone missing the historical drama from the final film, then, can find it in Mann’s commentary; he reveals a deep level of research that only makes it into the background of his story, and happily admits when he has conflated or compressed certain events to fit a 140-minute film.
The two-disc special edition DVD supplements (and in some cases reiterates) Mann’s elaboration with a series of brief featurettes covering historical aspects of the film: the technology, locations, and real-life individuals. Though dotted with worthwhile observations and newsreel footage from the period (Dillinger evidently loved going to the movies, and the feds tried to use newsreels to raise awareness of this celebrity outlaw), the material feels thin compared to the commentary. The historical footage deserves its own separate reel, like the bizarre archival material seen on the There Will Be Blood special edition.
In the end though, the history is beside the point, a fascinating explanation of what Public Enemies communicates without much exposition. We’re not watching John Dillinger rob banks so much as watching him be John Dillinger, staying in motion while the United States—the economy, law enforcement, crime itself—changes around him.