Film Review: Public Enemies

Impressive filmmaking and a disarming lead performance by Johnny Depp bring luster to this stylish re-creation of Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of brazen ’30s bank robber John Dillinger.

Although his career includes projects as varied as Ali, The Insider and The Last of the Mohicans, “crime” and “style” are two words that invariably come to mind when attempting to describe the oeuvre of director Michael Mann. His TV series “Miami Vice,” with its pastel MTV-cops aesthetic, loomed large in ’80s iconography, while his follow-up show “Crime Story” recaptured the early ’60s with seductive coolness. And let’s not forget the brooding visual intensity of his hit Al Pacino/Robert De Niro cop/gangster faceoff, Heat.

Mann pours on the style once again with Public Enemies, his epic account of the pursuit of infamous ’30s bank robber John Dillinger by young FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Summer-blockbuster stalwarts Johnny Depp and Christian Bale play the felon and the fed, and though Public Enemies is too aesthetically inclined to post blockbuster numbers, it’s a sensational-looking effort that builds gradually to a gripping denouement, powered by another charismatic Depp performance.

In an era of celebrated crime figures, Dillinger arguably towers above the rest. His violent spree lasted just over a year, from May 1933 to July 1934, but his brazen, elusive persona captured the imagination of the Depression-era public. The rash of high-profile robberies by Dillinger and his cohorts Baby Face Nelson and Alvin Karpis spurred the rise of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, with the Dillinger manhunt led by principled agent Purvis.

The screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, based on the book by Bryan Burrough, begins with Dillinger masterminding the escape of members of his crew from Indiana State Prison in September 1933, the first of two bold jail breakouts chronicled in the film. Mann’s pacing is a bit leisurely in the first half, but as Purvis’ chase intensifies, one strong set-piece follows another. One of the most deftly handled is the feds’ nighttime raid on the Dillinger gang’s hideout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin. Filming in the actual location, Mann choreographs the chaotic confrontations and narrow escapes with precision and punch. It all leads up to Dillinger’s headline-making capture outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, a sequence which hauntingly incorporates footage from Manhattan Melodrama, the Clark Gable-Myrna Loy gangster picture he watched just before being gunned down.

More low-key than usual, Depp still infuses his Dillinger with a sense of mischief and a palpable joy in his reckless defiance of authority. (In yet another movie theatre scene, the gangster doesn’t flinch when his face appears on the screen and the audience is warned that Dillinger “may be sitting in your row.”) The actor also has an intriguing chemistry with French Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, the initially reticent coat-check girl who becomes his dazzled lover. Cotillard has a fiery standout moment late in the film, as Billie is captured and brutally interrogated before Purvis intervenes.

Bale brings the expected intensity to the role of the upright, often demoralized Purvis, but it’s a relatively thankless part compared to the colorful Dillinger. Among the huge supporting cast, standouts include a somewhat beefier Billy Crudup as the young Hoover, Jason Clarke (“Brotherhood”) as Dillinger’s dependable cohort “Red” Hamilton, and Stephen Lang as formidable special agent Charles Winstead.

Shooting in HD video, Mann’s longtime cinematographer Dante Spinotti delivers strikingly sharp and elegant images throughout, and the period production design by Nathan Crowley and costume design by Colleen Atwood are exceptional.

Whether or not Universal’s summer counterprogramming strategy succeeds, Public Enemies deserves to be on adult audiences’ “wanted” list.