Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann and based on the book by Bryan Burroughs, is set in 1933. It was, as the film tells us, the 4th year of the American Depression and the Golden Age of bank robbery.
Charismatic criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger captured the imagination of a nation struggling with economic hardship. It was the era of Outlaw as Rockstar.
Dillinger, the focus of Public Enemies, cut a dashing figure. Known as the Gentleman Bandit, Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, was a murderous bank robber but he wouldn’t swear in front of women.
He robbed banks but he let customers keep their money. Dillinger was killed by police only 13 months after he embarked on a crime spree but his daring exploits, including breaking out of prison with a gun made of soap, became the stuff of legend.
Public Enemies explores the man behind the myth and the era that created him.
The crime wave, considered the greatest in American history, led to the birth of the FBI. Much of Public Enemies is a superbly crafted cops-and-robbers game.
Agent Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale, doggedly tracks down Dillinger, who continues to rob banks, stay one step ahead of the cops and romance a luminous hat check girl, played by Marion Cotillard.
Curiously however, despite the star power and rapid-fire action, the first hour of Public Enemies, is dramatically inert.
We move from one set piece to the next, without getting a real sense of Dillinger or his nemesis Purvis. Bale seems even more stone-faced than usual. It’s visually crackling but you’ll find yourself checking text messages.
But have patience because the drama builds up like a slow heat, climaxing in an explosive shoot-out between the gangsters and cops, which will leave you breathless.
Depp doesn’t make Dillinger an easy read. He’s charismatic and witty but also dark and strangely menacing. His sexy swagger masks a knowing angst. His vulnerability in love is deeply moving. It is a memorable performance.
Bale starts to show hints of life toward only in the latter half of the film but Cottilard is fittingly lovely and tragic. Public Enemies never becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Underneath the gangster chic, the film doesn’t have clarity or enough narrative tension. But I strongly recommend that you catch it. It has layers that simmer inside you long after the film is over.