Public Enemies always had the potential to be special given that it’s a crime saga from the director of Heat that follows one of America’s most colourful outlaws, as played by one of Hollywood’s most versatile and talented stars.
Fortunately, Michael Mann’s latest is every bit as great as the build-up suggests, with Johnny Depp typically mesmerising as John Dillinger. Based on Bryan Burrough’s book, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34, the film chronicles Dillinger’s Depression-era crime spree and how it brought about a change in tactics by the FBI.
It’s packed with fascinating characters (from Feds Melvin Purvis and J Edgar Hoover to criminals Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd) and overflowing with bank robberies, shoot-outs and prison breaks. In short, it’s Mann doing what Mann does best.
As with Collateral and Miami Vice, the director has chosen to shoot much of the film in his now trademark hand-held style, which lends the films – and particularly its gunfights – an immediacy that makes the story all the more gripping.
His decision to use as many real locations as possible – including the site of Dillinger’s most famous gunfight at Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin and the site of his death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre – heightens the authenticity.
There are minor niggles, such as the occasional distortion of history (Nelson’s fate, in particular, might grate), as well as not enough time or depth for Christian’s Bale’s Purvis or Stephen Graham’s Baby Face.
But Depp expertly combines the charisma that helped Dillinger to become dubbed America’s Robin Hood with the inherent danger of a violent, unpredictable gangster. His relationship with Marion Cotillard’s love interest Billie Frechette is nicely played and is genuinely moving. On this form, there are few finer actors working in mainstream Hollywood today.
Public Enemies is gripping, powerful stuff that, even at just shy of two-and-a-half hours, doesn’t feel long enough.
(15) 143min. General release from Wed 1 Jul.