Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies sees Michael Mann, more or less, remaking Heat, albeit digitally. Many have strong opinions on the director’s digital aesthetic, but he is undoubtedly committed to his style, showing a love and mastery of digital photography that demands to be respected if nothing else. The blatant modernity of digital, at first glance, seems ill suited to the Depression Era setting, and Mann even forgoes the warm, yellow aesthetic one expects with a period piece in favor of stylized and washed out grit. Fortunately, there’s an immediacy and intimacy to digital that lends itself nicely to this Dillinger story. 

“What do you want?” Billie Frechette breathily asks Dillinger in bed after a session of lovemaking. “Everything. Right now,” Depp answers with conviction. The line is not only drenched in typical Mann coolness, but symbolic of Dillinger, the visuals, and indeed the film as a whole. After serving a considerable prison sentence John Dillinger is out, robbing banks, riding adrenaline, and eschewing all thought of tomorrow until he meets the ravishing Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Squeezed on both sides – from an FBI with strong, new leadership in the form of Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), and organized crime members who eschew the public image “old fashioned” gangsters like Dillinger maintain – Dillinger spends much of the film on the run.

Many Mann mainstays are on display. Johnny Depp is an interesting choice for John Dillinger, as he imbues the role with more traditional charm than typical Mann-leads, but he proves up to the masculine challenge. Dante Spinotti’s breathtaking cinematography gets up close to the actors, living in the moment with them just as Dillinger lives. Public Enemies also showcases a disregard for exposition and detailed back story, another Mann mainstay, highlighting the immediacy of Dillinger’s life. This is not to be confused with laziness, as the film sports striking attention to period detail and palpable sense of atmosphere thanks to Mann’s commitment to on-location shooting. Instead of highlighting and pointing this out, as a lesser film with superb details might do, Mann lets them slide into the background and build the world and period, focusing more on the characters, the action, and the immediacy. Also along for the ride are the obligatory shootouts, of which Public Enemies contains several. Constructed with the artistry of a practiced architect, the gun battles are pure examples of visceral action cinema at its best. A set piece involving a siege on a gangster safe house stands as a highlight, ebbing and flowing with a blood-pumping rhythm that Mann has honed to a razor sharp edge over the years.

Much of the auteur’s filmmaking bravura is here, and it’d be challenging to dispute the strokes of mastery on display, but Public Enemies is not without fault. As punchy and quick as its themes are (“Die the way you live: all of the sudden,” is excerpted from Manhattan Melodrama) the film feels a bit too long. As it is clear that Mann isn’t interested in traditional biopic beats, Public Enemies should clock in 15 minutes shorter, and it would hit all the harder for it. Also, although Mann’s films continuously involve similar themes, characters, and motifs, Public Enemies feels a bit too akin to his earlier saga Heat at times to be entirely exonerated. While much of this is due to subject matter, where his other films diverged from his core obsessions Enemies occasionally seems determined to spin its tires in a well-worn thematic rut. Thankfully the core trio of Depp, Cotillard, and Bale are distinct enough to prevent it from rankling too often. Public Enemies remains a lush, exhilarating, and rewarding cinematic experience.

★★

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