Public Enemies is the story of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), one of the top crooks that terrorised police forces and thrilled the American public during the Great Depression era.
Dillinger, and contemporaries such as Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), were mythologised by the media and became folk heroes due to their anti-authoritarian escapades.
These interstate bandits transcended the jurisdictions of local police, in turn seeing the rise of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) at the helm.
This 1920s-1930s era of crime, termed by the film as a ‘Golden Age’, has been mined solidly by American cinema over the years, in both fictionalised and historically-accurate accounts. Gangster and crime films are also some of the most successful, critically lauded and zeitgeist-grabbing, such as the pre-Hays Code grit of James Cagney in The Public Enemy, Arthur Penn’s landmark New Hollywood meditation, Bonnie And Clyde, and Brian De Palma’s zinging 1980s romp, The Untouchables.
Mann’s approach to Public Enemies is unique and admirable, but almost damned from the outset. The narrative is classic crime drama: Dillinger robs banks with a theatrical flair, and easily outwits any cops that are lucky enough to apprehend him. While pilfering the vaults, he refuses to take the money of everyday citizens, cooking up a reputation of an early 20th Century Robin Hood; this softer interior is mirrored in his relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat checker in a Chicago hotel. Their romance flourishes as Dillinger’s luck starts to run out, and as he is pursued to the death by FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).
However, the narrative just isn’t served by the direction. Despite sporting beautiful, sumptuous production design, from the sets to the costumes, Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti boldly chose to ‘go modern’ with Public Enemies‘ direction and cinematography. The use of high-definition, handheld digital cameras gives a crisp image, and when teamed with a naturalistic approach to lighting, it creates a film that makes the past intimate and tangible. Sadly, this is undermined by Mann’s adoption of other ‘post-Bourne‘ tricks, which run the gamut from fast editing and seemingly spontaneous framing to a booming, bass-heavy audio track and, you guessed it, shaky-cam.
It sounds a bit quirky, and the gamble doesn’t pay off. Public Enemies may, in direction, be a fully-cranked action flick, but its other elements suggest a half-hearted stab at something more affecting. The cast are uniformly strong. Depp, in particular, benefits from being freed of his recent caricatured (if still impressive) roles: his Dillinger is predatory, amorous and smug. A stand-out scene involves Dillinger sitting in a cinema, as a newsreel concerning him flashes on the screen, the voice-over imploring the audience to look to their left and right for this Public Enemy Number One. As his fellow cinema-goers apathetically glance around, Dillinger’s smirk is priceless.
Bale, Crudup and Cotillard head up a supporting cast (for this, despite a three-headed publicity drive, is mostly a one person show) that is uniformly strong. Unfortunately, they are not served well by the film’s exaggerated naturalism, with both Crudup’s slightly camp Hoover and Bale’s stiffly internalised Purvis seeming stagy in the process. Likewise, the script, which at times bursts with Untouchables-esque one-liners and witty retorts, or at others dabbles in weepy sentimentalism, comes off as corny in the hyper-reality. The vast majority of the film progresses as short scenes, punctuated by the eardrum-splitting crack of gunfire – with poor Elliot Goldenthal having to re-align his score seemingly by-the-minute.
As Public Enemies jumps from heist to shootout to jailbreak, there is little time for characters to breathe, relationships to develop, or themes to ferment. There are undertones of the changing landscape of crime, and the intermingling of crooks and popular mythology, but these are drowned out by bombast.
Worst served by this approach is Cotillard, a wafer-thin character whose role involves fluttering eyelashes, speaking in an accent and pining for her man. The actress copes well, especially in her moment of rebellion and resolve against the over-zealous lawmen, but it is hard to engage with characters when perched on the edge of your seat, anticipating another 10 minute shoot-em-up scene. It is so trigger-happy, that in its final crawl, an elegiac recreation of Dillinger’s death, the threat of death, sight of blood, and sound of gunshots confront a mostly desensitised viewer.
It results in a film that has all of the grace of a Tommy gun. Its incessant pacing is on full automatic, sputtering and jamming at times – with the camera swaying wildly with recoil. All depth and resonance are sieved out of an ultra-compressed narrative (yet it’s still 140 mins long!), and any subtlety is eventually drowned out by woodpecker-on-skull sound design.
Public Enemies is a frustrating hodge-podge of contradictions – not in reference to its thematic complexity, but its conflicted aesthetic. It attempts to bring the house down with a sensory-overload bang, but its qualities are buried in the debris.