While watching Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, I was reminded of a particular character in Heat, the getaway driver who drops his day job on the spot for the slightest hint of a heist. That’s the essence of a Mann criminal – they really know nothing else. Such is the case with his version of John Dillinger, aced by Johnny Depp, born only to rob banks and die young. Mann fashions the infamous Depression-era outlaw into a figure of charisma, ruthlessness and suicidal audacity.
Like a pop star with the lifespan of a bottle rocket, the Dillinger of history terrorized the Midwest for a grand total of one crazy year of bloody bank jobs, jail breaks, and shootouts with the Bureau of Investigation. Mann transforms Dillinger into a legendary self-made American Original being squeezed by an increasingly conformist and corporate nation. The cops are scientific and powerful. The mob is turning into a dull business. Robbing a bank is a childish joyride. He stands as an emblem of the times, yet he is already a charismatic anachronism.
Mann is so enamored of his Dillinger that he balances him with an FBI that, given the context, borders on the silly. The film links the FBI to Italian Fascism, suggesting that their tough tactics are the heirs of a spoiled legacy. It’s as if trying to stop a bloody crime wave were merely a bunch o squares harshing on an outburst of originality and initiative. Perhaps he would like to explain to Mexican citizens that they currently are experiencing a vigorous outburst of individualism.
Mann gets a quietly eccentric performance from his lead, backed with an excellent but miscast. Marion Cotillard as his gun moll Billie Frechette. Enamored with his central villain, Mann leaves Christian Bale to a series of mannerisms as underdeveloped G-Man Melvin Purvis, too large of a role to be the cipher it is. The failure to develop Purvis as an adequate balance keeps the film from reaching the epic weight that it seeks. Public Enemies won’t help any teenager pass a test.
It conflates incidents, ignores others. At times, such as the parade-like trip to jail in Indiana, the film can seem too much like gangster movie porn – a director sating a childhood fascination with Tommy Guns, running boards and gun molls. At other times, such as the monster night-time shootout between G-Men and a group of legendary bank robbers, Public Enemies takes your breath.