Giving Michael Mann the story of famed 1930s American bank robber John Dillinger and putting Johnny Depp in the lead role opposite another acting heavywieght in the shape of Christian Bale should have set the screen alight with a Heat-esque masterpiece of cop verses robber. The tommy gun-fuelled heists during Depression Era in the States interlaced with the study of a hardened criminal are prime material for Mann to use to get his top Hollywood stars fired up. Yet Public Enemies falls way short of expectation due to a clumsy narrative and strangely lifeless lead actors meandering through more than two hours of screentime.
John Dillinger is notorious for his fourteen months of blasting across the Midwest with his gang. From May 1933 to his death the following year, Dillinger’s crime spree came after his release from nearly nine years in prison for robbing a gorcery store. While incarcerated he learned the art of bank robbery from inmates, and became an accomplished robber himself when he was back on the streets. He eluded the FBI, including top agent Melvin Purvis (Bale), until being sold out. Such a story in the hands of the talented trio of Mann, Depp and Bale should have made for a compelling crime biography.
Public Enemies has a cold heart making it hard to like, even harder to enjoy.
The subject matter is ideal material for Mann who has long been a fan of getting into the mind’s of criminals and cops alike. With Heat, Mann got under the skin of Pacino’s cop and De Niro’s criminal mastermind in a classic game of cat and mouse — the real life tale of Dillinager verses Purvis was much the same and he’s given the chance to delve into a real gangster’s lifestyle at a time when they lived like kings while everyone else had to battle to survive Depression Era America. For once, Mann’s skills behind the camera don’t apply the glossy finish he’s so famous for, perhaps struggling as he’s more used to bringing out the shine in fast-paced, modern crime and all the glamour which goes with it. The 1930s of Public Enemies is far removed from 1970s Miami. Depp’s performance is another problem. He can pull off the look of a 1930s mob boss, but his heart does not seem to be in the role. He often appears detached from the words coming out of his mouth and hides behind his tommy gun in the action scenes rather than taking charge of the situation. The tough-talking is laboured which makes for dull viewing, though Depp at least comes alive when on-screen with Dillinger’s squeeze Billie Frechette (an under-used Marion Cotillard): give a guy a girl and watch them smile. Bale’s Purvis is a straight-down-the-line FBI agent with little charisma, surprising given the actor’s performances in American Psycho, his Batman appearances and The Machinist, which just adds to the frustration. Somewhere there’s a great story behind John Dillinger and his crimes — this just isn’t the way to tell it.
Public Enemies offers so much promise, it just fails to spark up the excitement needed to come alive. The historic details give the film worthiness and Mann captures scenes expertly: it’s what’s in them that is the problem as they pass by all too easily without the engagement needed to sustain interest. Like Dillinger, Public Enemies has a cold heart making it hard to like, even harder to enjoy.