Director Michael Mann re-enters the biopic genre post-Ali (2001) with all tommy guns blazing in Public Enemies, a sentiment-stripped ode to the ego and exploits of notorious curt-talkin’ anti-establishment bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). No Mann crime flick is complete without a man-on-man dynamic and here Christian Bale plays the cop to Depp’s robber; he’s Melvin Purvis, the man who must hunt and ki-, er, arrest Dillinger and bring him to justice. The film tributes the glory era of modern crime, set in the 1930s after the coming of rapid-fire guns and automobiles but before the bank pilfering party was gate-crashed by surveillance equipment, advanced fingerprinting, face recognition software, electronic safes, those bullet proof bank screens that shoot up in front of the tellers and every other crim-irking device that got in the way of a good ol’ fashion robbery. Busting out of prison comes easy to Dillinger, his jail breakout methods barely more sophisticated than pointing his fingers in a gun shape at a guard. His gang barely break a sweat – after robbing banks the crew simply drive to the next town, check into a hotel, order a drink. The nostalgia is enough to make contemporary criminals, pedantic about leaving microscopic traces of hair and spittle, foam from the mouth.
Depp and Bale fare well but the characters feel more than a smidgeon under-developed, which is surprising given the running time clocks in at almost two and half hours (though it feels a lot shorter). There is very little in the way of chemistry between the two stars, largely because they share the frame in only one short-lived scene. Mann resists the temptation to have them interact in other ways, like the scene in Catch Me If You Can when hunter (Tom Hanks) and hunted (Leonardo DeCaprio) exchange a little Christmas season repartee over the telephone. A move like that, which must have been tempting, would have increased the dramatic friction but more than likely at the expense of realism. This kind of restraint is indicative of Mann’s approach: not only is Public Enemies not a conventionally minded film, it’s a film that snubs the punchy dramatic moments most viewers want and expect. There is no all-out final confrontation between hero and villain (in this case anti-hero and anti-villain); no loquacious monologues from the protagonists and few revealing ones; no firm commitment to the three act structure. Mann refuses most of the obvious opportunities to juice up the material and the film has an elusive, drifting quality, a sort of slice-of-life deconstruction of legend and folklore that occasionally slips back into overtly cinematic territory (the night-time forest shoot-out scene, which is a highlight, comes to mind). Mann’s restraint is admirable, but nevertheless a grand action scene comparable to the finales of Heat or Collateral would have brought the house down.
Public Enemies’ Australian theatrical release: July 30, 2009.
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