Dillinger is the Mann
Michael Mann as a director can be an acquired taste, I say acquired because for every widely praised movie he makes that has mass appeal he delivers up another which is equally as good but doesn't gel with what audiences expect. It had happened with "Ali" splitting audiences down the middle and I would imagine that "Public Enemies" could have the same effect as whilst it's a brilliantly made movie which delves into the final months of John Dillinger's life it's not the big action cliche that you might expect. It is in many ways a pure movie, not concerned with the star power of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale or with big crowd pleasing action sequences but with telling a story at it's own pace and in it's own style.
It's the year 1933 and as J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup - Sleepers) tries to establish his force of agents they set their eyes on bringing in dangerous criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp - Chocolat) and his friends, assigning Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale - The Prestige) to head the Chicago operations. But Dillinger leads a charmed life with a freedom as he walks the streets of Chicago and stages audacious bank jobs. Although as Purvis and the agents close in on Dillinger it seems that time is running out for the notorious criminal and his gang including new love of his life Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard - A Good Year).
Despite knowing the name of John Dillinger and many of the legends surrounding this notorious bank robber I wouldn't say I know that much, I didn't know how he died or anything of his childhood. And as such "Public Enemies" could have left me wanting due its focus on a limited period in Dillinger's life, not bothering to build up the character or reasoning as to why he became a criminal. But strangely it didn't, it didn't need to go into his childhood because during the 134 minutes that "Public Enemies" runs for you get to know Dillinger or at least the Dillinger which Mann wants us to. We learn that he is ruthless, that time in side has left me short of a few social skills but also that he is a charmer, someone who whilst brutal has some form of kindness inside of him. As such "Public Enemies" is one of those movies which gets us routing for the bad guy, we take Dillinger into our hearts despite being a dangerous criminal and we want him to escape the clutches of FBI Agent Melvin Purvis.
The other side of the story is that of Melvin Purvis and his attempts to bring in Dillinger. It's an element to the Dillinger story I know nothing about and as such I don't know how much of the storyline was manufactured or not. But in a way it didn't matter because you get an idea how far Purvis would go to get his man and that is what it is all about. Michael Mann doesn't go for lots of big action scenes one after the other but delivers a more level headed approach as we watch Purvis and various other agents and officers do what it takes, be it right or wrong, to get Dillinger and his criminal friends.
But here is the thing "Public Enemies" is not some big mainstream movie, it doesn't go for the obvious and become cliche, it doesn't imitate other similar movies such as "The Untouchables". What we get is Michael Mann's vision, his way of story telling from long periods of silence, through to shaky cameras and strange zoom shots. It makes "Public Enemies" a movie which can be hard going because whilst it has big stars and action scenes none of that matters as Mann explores this small period in the life of a dangerous criminal. And what Mann does is to make us champion the bad guy playing with our sense of what is right and wrong. In doing so he has made a movie which makes you feel like something is missing but at the same time makes you want to watch.
As already mentioned "Public Enemies" has stars most notably Johnny Depp and Christian Bale although the supporting cast is just as impressive, but Mann doesn't care for their star power. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger as a character not as himself and so their is no handsome likeable star there is this dangerous man but one who wins us over. Bale is the same as FBI agent Melvin Purvis here is a man of the law, not Bale as an actor but an actual character and one which is not so dissimilar to Dillinger. It's because it could literally be anyone playing these roles makes "Public Enemies" all the more interesting because it is never about the star.
What this all boils down to is that "Public Enemies" is a very good movie, I wouldn't say entertaining because that isn't really the point of it but it is fascinating. It's fascinating on the primary level of looking into the life of Dillinger during his last months as the FBI lead by Melvin Purvis closed in on him. But it's equally fascinating to watch Mann's directional style, the way he sculptures this story which is almost emotionless, trading on story rather than star power and mainstream cliches like over the top action. As such "Public Enemies" is a movie which will split audiences and whether you can get past mainstream expectations will determine how much you like it.