NO historical and cultural aspects of America's real-life crime saga will ever goes unnoticed without mentioning the famed bank robber John Dillinger, the most publicized figure during the rise of 1930s Depression-era whose appearance subsequently prompted the rise of the FBI. Ironically though, for all his mass popularity that Hollywood will definitely love to craft a great story out of him, there are only two previous features: both low-budget and largely unnoticed of 1945's Max Nosseck's and 1973's John Milius versions which both are titled as DILLINGER.
But the arrival of PUBLIC ENEMIES looks set to be most fully-realized version of John Dillinger to date -- especially with Michael Mann on the helm, a dream cast of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale team up together for the first time, and a $100-million budget to boot.
Unfortunately what could have been Mann's most ambitious crime epic to date since his 1995's HEAT is sadly a missed opportunity that could have been turned into a great masterpiece.
Based on 2004's Bryan Burrough's book of Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, the film concentrates on the final one-year period in 1933 where we first see John Dillinger (Depp) and the rest of his fellow cohorts staging a daring escape from the Indiana State Penitentiary. Shortly after their jailbreak, they soon get down into business of subsequently robbing banks across the Midwest with repeated success. With all the crime wave peaked at an alarming rate caused by the unstoppable Dillinger and his gang, Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is hellbent to fight against it once and for all. So he created an entire federal task force specially devoted to his capture, and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is appointed as the lead, after making a great impression of killing one of famous criminals named Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). In the meantime, Dillinger finds his spare time attending in some swanky nightclubs and this is where he meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a middle-class beauty who is quickly fall in love with him. Dillinger's legacy as famed bank robber is soon found subsequently subsided, especially with Purvis and his men are constantly hard-pressed to bring them down at all necessary force possible. That ultimately lead to the death of Dillinger's two of his best gang members including Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Dillinger doesn't live long as well, as he is eventually shot to death by the agents on the night of July 22, 1934 while exiting Chicago's Biograph Theater, where he had attended a screening of Clark Gable's MANHATTAN MELODRAMA.
The good news is, Michael Mann is in near-top form here after suffering from an overblown disappointment of MIAMI VICE (2006). Together with a talented team of technical professionals, he has successfully re-created an authentic look of the Depression-era 1930s with such meticulous detail right down from its costume to its splendid production design. Dante Spinotti's unusual choice of HD cinematography may have look awkward at first, especially since it was used for a period crime setting like PUBLIC ENEMIES but Michael Mann's continuous approach to push the era of high-definition video since COLLATERAL (2004) has surprisingly brings a fresh angle here. Shot in CineAlta F23 high-end HD camera, the film is certainly great-looking with every pore on the faces of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are noticably present in significant detail, while enhancing the vibrancy of the overall background. The action, in the meantimes, always Mann's specialty is top-notch. One particular memorable scene, which involved an exhilaratingly violent shootout by Purvi's team on Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and others holed up at the remote Little Bohemia lodge, is captured with great attention to the realistic quality of the gunshots where the deafening sound really pop as if you were there on the scene. Here, the usage of HD cinematography also helps rendering the darkest possible nighttime blacks upon which the gun blasts explode with bursts of white light, is especially great to look at.
Despite all the attention devoted in this film, it's rather disappointed to see Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman and Michael Mann's script leaves little to be desired of. Anyone who is anticipating for a meticulous look of Dilinger's life will be disappointed by their largely brief and surprisingly unfocused narrative thrust that doesn't happen to scratch beyond its surface. We all know that Dillinger is a popular folk hero who rob banks, but we hardly learn anything beyond his course of action and it isn't surprising at all Johnny Depp's much-anticipated performance comes across more of a one-note, shallow figure. Though his swaggering charm is magnetic enough to make him a perfect Dillinger, it's such a waste his supposedly Oscar-baiting role offers little depth other looking cool and suave the whole time. As Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale fits the no-nonsense and solemn character well but his performance more or less, the same old gruff self we have seen him one time too many from last year's THE DARK KNIGHT and his recent TERMINATOR SALVATION. Fresh from winning Best Actress Oscar in 2007's LA VIE EN ROSE, Marion Cottilard does what she can to excel in her thankless role as Dillinger's lover but too bad her character is largely underwritten. The rest of the large cast, with mostly recognizable faces including Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup, David Wenham and others, are all appeared more of stunt casting than dedicated performances.
It's hardly Mann's finest hour by any means, but at the very least, PUBLIC ENEMIES remains a good cinematic antidote worth watching this summer, especially with all those loud films around.