“Public Enemies” is more of a biopic then it is a gangster film. This movie sticks very closely to the historical facts surrounding the infamous John Dillinger and FBI agent Melvin Purvis. For those of you expecting a Michael Mann style “Godfather” you will be very disappointed. But as a biopic, this film works beautifully. Michael Mann is a perfect fit for this material, and gives the film a more realistic feel by shooting this story with high definition cameras, which he used for “Collateral” and “Miami Vice”.
Johnny Depp take son the title role of John Dillinger and ends up giving one of his best performances, and that is saying something. It is nice to see an actor refrain from playing a stereotypical gangster, and create a character closer to what this person might of been like. This is a man who enjoyed robbing banks as well as being in the lime light. Even though he was portrayed by the media as a Robin Hood style criminal, he was not a nice man at all. Dillinger was a cold blooded killer. The fact that he possessed a razor intelligence doesn’t change the fact that he should have ended up behind bars.
The man who was given the task of bringing down Dillinger was Melvin Purvis, played here by Christian Bale. First of all let me say that it is nice to see Bale giving a performance that doesn’t involve him simply brooding for two hours. Here he plays a man who is a straight arrow. He is a professional at what he does. After a violent encounter, he makes the bold decision to bring in some seasoned law men who can go toe to toe with hardened criminals. We see him in the beginning, gunning down the known criminal Pretty Boy Floyd. This catches the eye of J. Edgar Hoover, who puts him in charge of catching Dilliner. Hoover is played by Billy Crudup, in a performance that is uncanny, and should be remembered at awards time.
Michael Mann is a master in creating crime sagas. He makes the criminal underworld look so appealing at first. Everything is fortune and excitement, but once we are hooked, he shows us the outcome of such a life style, which usually involves a violent death, or prison. His use of high definition makes these events feel all the more real. The scenes where gun fire is exchanged are loud and startling. They feel more real, as opposed to most Hollywood action films. Mann knows that to stylize the violence is to border in to fiction, and to glamorize a life style that is very dangerous.
But there characters always come first in a Michael Mann film, and this is no different. I really liked his portrayal of Dillinger. This is a man who blended in to the crowd. He walked among the people in plain view, yet was never recognized or arrested most of the time. There is an astonishing scene where Dillinger actually walks in to the head quarters of the John Dillinger Task Force, and browses all the evidence and pictures they have of him. He even runs in to a few members of the unit who are listening to a baseball game. “Who is winning?” John asks them.
This is a very well made film. It is efficient and gets the job done. I have a theory about biopics though. I think that the quality of the film depends on how interesting the subjects life is. The story of John Dillinger is interesting, but it is not one of the most original tales that could have been brought to the big screen. But as the subject of a Michael Mann film, it becomes more intriguing then it might have been, but in a market place that is seriously lacking adult entertainment, “Public Enemies” is a must see.