“The reason you caught me Will is we’re just alike! You want the scent? Smell yourself!”
-Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) speaking to Will Graham (William Peterson) from a scene in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter”
After all these years, Michael Mann still has a great fascination with criminal masterminds and those who spend their careers chasing them down. Film after film, he has spends his time delving into how the “good guys” and “bad guys” feed off of one another, and of how and if they could not exist without each other. “Public Enemies” reminded me a lot of “Heat” in that respect, and it shares a lot of similarities as it looks at the famous John Dillinger played here by Johnny Depp, and at the man sent to catch him, Melvin Purvis. It’s not as great a film as “Heat” was unfortunately, but it is still a masterful piece of filmmaking and the kind we have come to expect from director Michael Mann.
The movie starts with Dillinger and some buddies of his breaking out of a maximum security prison, something that almost seemed easy to do the way they did it back in 1933. It turns out that he is actually quite the celebrity, and can find safe havens in one town or another. To many he is seen as a hero, and to others he is nothing more than a criminal. But as Dillinger continues to rob more and more banks, the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup of all people) become increasingly persistent in bringing him down. Hoover ends up turning to a man who just shot and killed another public enemy, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale in his second movie this summer). Melvin ends up leading a manhunt to take down Dillinger, and in the process changes from the person he thought he could be to the kind of person he is chasing after.
One thing that has not changed about Michael Mann’s movies is that he still knows how to stage one hell of a gunfight. Back in 1995, he gave us one of the greatest with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino shooting off a barrage of bullets in downtown Los Angeles in “Heat,” and Mann has lived in the shadow of that brilliantly staged moment ever since. Still, he has choreographed gun battles that were every bit as effectively brutal in “Collateral” and his film version of “Miami Vice.” In his films, you don’t just watch guns go off, you feel them going off. Along with an obsession in getting every visual detail just right, he makes you feel like you are in the middle of a war zone literally. When a bullet hits a body here, characters don’t just fall down like in an old western. Their bodies are forever shattered, and the wounds they carry last long after the end credits have finished. There are a lot of strong action scenes like this throughout “Public Enemies,” and each one is equally hair raising.
Having Johnny Depp cast as Dillinger must have seemed like a no brainer. They appear to share some similar tastes minus the heavy gunfire, given Depp’s previous reputation as a “wild boy:”
“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars… and you. What else you need to know?”
-Johnny Depp as John Dillinger from “Public Enemies”
Johnny Depp still remains one of the best actors of his generation, and he will never lose that title which is great. Throughout his career, he has constantly challenged himself as a director, and this role is no exception. Dillinger was a criminal celebrity, perhaps one of the first of that kind, and Depp almost effortlessly shows you how he made that all seem possible. With his eyes, he can still seduce the most knowledgeable and naïve of women without even having to try too hard. Depp clearly brings out the joy that Dillinger gets out of life, and he also gets at the depth of pain he experiences as those close to him leave him, cut him loose, or get killed off.
With the role of Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale delves into many of the same situations that haunted Bruce Wayne/Batman in “The Dark Knight.” Melvin starts off as a man dedicated to the law and who follows the rules and regulations to the letter, but after some serious setbacks, he finds he has to use different methods to get his man. These methods includes acts and people which work outside of the law. In the process, just like Bruce Wayne, he ends up seeing what he has to become in order to capture Dillinger. But unlike Bruce, Melvin may not be able to live with himself when this is all through. Bale actually pulls off a really solid accent, and he has a much more nuanced character to play here than he did in “Terminator Salvation.”
But the one performance that I really enjoyed watching in “Public Enemies” was Marion Cotillard’s who plays Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette. She of course won the Best Actress Oscar for one of the greatest performances of all time in “La Vie en Rose.” She shares great chemistry with Depp throughout the film, and she is delightful to watch as she is ever so quickly drawn into Dillinger’s dangerous world. Billie does sense the trouble that lies ahead, but all that’s happening is too exciting for her to pass up. Showing both fear and excitement in a film scene without words is easier said than done, and she pulls it off like it’s no big deal. I can’t wait to see Marion in her next film!
If there’s anything that takes away from this film, it is that the movie doesn’t delve as deeply into the characters’ lives as I had hoped it would. If anything, “Public Enemies” would have benefited more from a back story, especially for Dillinger as to why and how he became a bank robber. It was also said that Dillinger was a hero because the banks he robbed ended up freeing things up for those who were economically challenged thanks to the Great Depression. I would have liked to have seen more of that because Mann may have thought this was clear from the way regular people treat him, but it doesn’t feel like they have a good enough reason to. Had there been a little more depth to these characters, this could have been as great a movie “Heat.”
Still, “Public Enemies” is fine filmmaking in a summer that could really use more of it (I’m still reeling from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”). It continues Mann’s theme of looking at how the line between cops and criminals is often blurred, and of how the two are actually one and the same. You could almost call this “Heat” as a period piece. Mann makes you wonder if a criminal can ever find and hang onto a love despite being the constant law breaker that he is. He also makes you wonder if the cop can ever lead a normal life outside their career of going after the crook. From William Petersen trying to think like the killer in “Manhunter” to James Caan trying to leave a life of crime behind in “Thief,” it’s a thin line indeed. Perhaps Mann keeps pursuing this theme in hopes that there will be a tomorrow for these people despite their separate ways of life which are actually more similar than we would ever want to realize. Maybe he will find that answer in his next film, but that’s something we will have to wait several years for probably.
***½ out of ****