In the run up to the release of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies last summer, it’s fair to suggest that many people thought they were in for a pseudo-sequel to Heat. We had Johnny Depp and Christian Bale adopting the Robert De Niro and Al Pacino roles, there was early footage of a big shoot out, and – with what looked like a dose of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables in there too – many thought they were going to get Mann’s 1995 action classic transferred to the 1930s.
Public Enemies is absolutely not that film. Sitting down to watch it for the first time, away from the swell of hype around its release, I’m finding myself regretting not watching it on the big screen. Because while this is no Heat, this is an absorbing, compelling drama, that charts primarily the true(ish) story of John Dillinger, as played by Johnny Depp.
Dillinger was, of course, a notorious criminal in the era of the American Great Depression, albeit one whom the public inevitably warmed to, thanks to gestures such as refusing to take money off members of the public when he was robbing banks, preferring to help himself to the cash of the institution concerned. Along with the likes of Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, he became an anti-hero, something Michael Mann’s film gets across very, very well.
But this didn’t sit well with the powers that be, not least J Edgar Hoover. And as America sat on the eve of the modern-day FBI, Hoover called in Agent Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale, to bring Dillinger down.
Just getting to that point in the film, Mann has put on the screen some stylish, compelling and detailed cinema. But then he chooses to focus the bulk of his film on Dillinger, for periods ignoring the pursuit of him, and relegating his pivotal romance with Billie (Marion Cotillard), who gets very little screen time as the supposed love of his life.
This approach works in Depp’s favour, but not necessarily the film’s. Depp puts in terrific work as Dillinger, exposing the pressures and short term approach of the man. It’s a terrific piece of characterisation he manages, suitably far away from Jack Sparrow, and superbly executed. The space that Bale gets to bring Purvis’ character to the screen is used well, but you can’t help feeling that it could have used further fleshing out. There’s inevitably a scene where the pair meet up mid-way through the film (a scene that didn’t happen in real life), and while that inevitably draws comparisons with the coffee shop moment from Heat, the truth is that by this point in Public Enemies, we know a whole lot more about Dillinger than we do Purvis. Thus, the effect isn’t quite the same.
Mann took quite a lot of flack, too, for using a very modern toolbox of filming tricks in making the film, with handheld photography and occasionally the feel of a Jason Bourne adventure (something Michael Leader noted in his original review). I had less of a problem with that, though, although can see the argument that it didn’t particularly enhance the material.
I did like the film a lot, though, and I wasn’t really expecting to. Michael Mann is a genius in my book, but look hard as I might, I can’t find too much love for his movie of Miami Vice, and I suspected that may be the same here. It wasn’t, though. Public Enemies is a stylised, flawed, superbly shot and intriguing story, that doesn’t take the angle I’d necessarily prefer it to take, but it delivers a thumping good piece of cinema, with a standout performance from Johnny Depp. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good sight better than you may have been led to believe.
The Blu-ray presentation of the film is excellent. Firm with its colours, and evoking the detail of the world Michael Mann puts on camera, the 1080p transfer is easily one of the best I’ve seen all year. Adept in both the action sequences and the many moments of slow drama, it’s matched toe to toe by an expansive soundstage that, again, is a real treat.
There are plenty of extra features here too. Michael Mann’s educated, in-depth commentary track is a very informative piece of work. It’s a fascinating listen, from a man who absolutely knows his subject matter inside out. This comes across in his appearance in the assorted featurettes too.
And there are quite a few of them. Larger Than Life: Adversaries is too short, really, as it looks at the two main characters in the film, with help from not only the stars of the film, but also relatives. The same could be said of the excellent Last of The Legendary Outlaws piece, which is over too quickly, especially given just how interesting the material it presents is. Then there’s a piece looking at the use of real locations in Public Enemies, and a featurette covering the increasing use of technology by law enforcement at the time.
You also get a featurette about Michael Mann making the film, which crosses over with the commentary a little, a gangster quiz, and the usual Universal Blu-ray bits and bobs.
It’s really quite unusual for such a modern film to feature such an interesting collection of feature material on its maiden disc release, but then Public Enemies was never your run of the mill summer film.
The disc release is unlikely to make it any less divisive, but it remains a fascinating, intriguing piece of work, on a very strong Blu-ray.
The Movie:The Disc: