Johnny Depp stars as John Dillinger, the legendary American depression-era bank robber, in the Michael Mann directed biopic. It follows Dillinger as he begins his spree, robbing numerous banks in a matter of months, becoming both America’s most wanted criminal and a folk hero at the same time. Along the way he meets and falls for a young lady name Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Chasing Dillinger is the Bureau of Investigation’s Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Purvis has been turned into a poster child for the Bureau by J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who is pushing for more power for his still fledgling organisation.
While the film is careful not to simply on the focus on the legend of the man, we do get plenty of little nods and acknowledgements to it. Dillinger is as obsessed with his legend as anyone else, and takes steps to cultivate that legend, stopping to recount details of his exploits to awed reporters while waiting to be processed in prison. It is as if he acknowledges that his is a life not destined to last, and so he wishes to live on in people’s memories, but in the transfer to public memory, he has the chance to round a few edges and embolden a few attributes.
Mann’s use of digital video gives the film a harshness that is highly unusual for any film, but particularly one set in an era normally softened with a sepia tinge. While it does render the shoot-out scenes superbly, making them enormously real and completely devoid of the glamour with which they are usually portrayed, it does pull you out of the experience on a few occasions and can be very distracting. There’s also the shaky camera work, which at times is so shaking that I defy you to be able to tell what is happening on screen.
One of the biggest problems with Public Enemies is that we never grow to truly care particularly for any of the characters, as we never really learn what makes them tick. We see what they do, but we never really get much insight into why, much to the film’s detriment. Because of this, we’re left feeling cold and distant, much like the digital video camera work.
I guess that, ultimately, my biggest problem with Public Enemies is that it’s not as good as it could and should have been, from a director like Michael Mann and a cast of Depp and Bale. This should have been one of the very best films of the year, an all time classic. Instead, it’s a decent enough film that I don’t imagine I’ll sit down to watch again any time soon. And that’s a real pity. B-.