Michael Mann’s Depression-set gangster epic follows celebrity heist man (and ‘Public Enemy Number One’) John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), who is loosely mixed up with famous names like ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd (Channing Tatum, wittily cast and dead in his first scene) and ‘Baby Face’ Nelson (Stephen Graham), and opposed by J. Edgar Hoover (a squashed Billy Crudup), ambitious director of the as-yet not-federal Bureau of Investigation, and on-the-ground G Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Though both are surrounded by allies, rivals and would-be manipulative bosses, the film sets up the flamboyant, daring, somehow-popular Dillinger and the calm, measured lawman Purvis as mirror-image antagonists, which means that this constantly threatens to turn into Heat in Hats. Going over his own backlist thematically while tackling slices of history already covered in Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson, John Milius’s Dillinger, Lewis Teague and John Sayles’s fanciful The Lady in Red and Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Public Enemies has trouble forging its own identity – it’s longer than it needs to be if it’s just about the Dillinger-Purvis clash, but almost all the supporting figures get short shrift and it takes quite a while to sort out who, say, ‘Red’ Hamilton (Jason Clarke) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) actually are (Dillinger’s closest comrades). Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) gets a build-up early on, but figures surprisingly little in the film – suggesting a longer cut due to emerge on DVD down the line.
A long stretch of the film is taken up by Dillinger’s wooing of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), to whom his ambiguous last words (‘bye bye blackbird’) are reputedly addressed, but there’s comparatively little build-up for Anna Sage (Branka Katic) and Polly Hamilton (LeeLee Sobieski), who accompanied Dillinger on his last movie outing. Mann’s thesis is that Dillinger’s out-in-the-open, highly-publicised banditry eventually became an embarrassment to organised crime, as represented by Al Capone’s old sidekick Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) and a nationwide bookie racket, because it enabled Hoover to get political support to create an interstate FBI which could inconvenience ‘the Syndicate’; actually, Hoover went out of his way to ignore the existence of organised crime until the late 1950s, and the real reason rural bank-robbing hoods like Dillinger and Nelson (and Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker) were rated so high as public enemies while, say, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel weren’t is that Hoover knew the outlaw types could be caught, convicted, assassinated or executed relatively easily, closing their cases and building the Bureau’s rep as tough on crime (while busts of organised rackets, as learned in Prohibition, were much, much more difficult and rarely dented the problem).
Depp has a scar and an unflattering haircut, but is a too-handsome, too-slick Dillinger – though he’s not the loose cannon maniac Nelson is, he still seems more sociopath than professional crook; his supposedly sincere romance doesn’t really register, and Cotillard only gets good material when she’s arrested and grilled extraordinary rendition style by weaselly feds Purvis frankly disapproves of. Bale’s lawman is stuck with being straight guy, and is edged out in the climax by his tough button man Charles Winstead (Mann regular Stephen Lang) – who bears witness to Dillinger’s last words and passes them on to Billie. There are Mannian action/crime set-pieces – the shootouts and chases are more distinctive than the heists, with good use of the period’s favourite weapons (especially the tommy gun – Nelson ploughs up the ground as he’s killed) and nervy, tense chases through forests. Most of the famous Dillinger anecdotes are used – the prison bust-out with a carved gun, the affable press conferences, the daring nightclubbing while among the nation’s most wanted – and a couple of new ones added, including a last hurrah as he impulsively drops into the Chicago police HQ and pokes delightedly around the offices of the squad detailed to catch him. Mann uses the dogme-style digital video look he’s experimented with in Collateral and Miami Vice, applying it interestingly to a big-budget period picture with elaborate costumes, cars, sets and props. A big cast includes Lili Taylor as a lady sheriff, Peter Gerety as a sneaky mob lawyer, Rory Cochrane as the doomed best friend fed, Emilie DeRavin, John Ortiz and Matt Craven.