Public Enemies is the latest Hollywood incarnation of the John Dillinger story, and like another recent outlaw film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it takes a terse, muscular, and yet meditative view of one of America's most notorious criminals.
Johnny Depp plays Depression-era bank robber Dillinger with hot and cold authority. He actually looks a lot like the real Dillinger, at least from the mug shots, but he brings him to life in such a way that he begins to resemble the real Dillinger even more than still photographs could ever suggest. By turns violent, seductive, brutal, playful, idealistic and fatalistic, he seems to get inside Dillinger's head and truly disappear into the role.
The film opens with a daring jail break by Dillinger and his gang, and the action never stops from there. Mann fills each frame with interesting and authentic detail, often using real settings from Dillinger's life. He shows the action as it must have happened, and largely lets it speak for itself, with not much time for looking back or slowing down, as Dillinger's real life during these events must have been. And yet there are lots of scenes, or little moments within action scenes, when fascinating, telling details come to the fore, when the frame becomes almost a little painting, composed so perfectly and yet realistically that it speaks volumes about the story with an enviable economy.
There are a couple of specific instances of this. After one of their heists, the gang is making its escape, and it's a close one. They trade gunfire with police and barely get away. As they drive off, almost as an afterthought, the left side of the frame shows rolling legs, while the camera does not move. We don't know if these legs belong to a police officer, a gangster or a member of the public with bad timing, if they belong to a dead man, a mortally wounded man or somebody who jumps up and has an amazing story of a close call to tell for the rest of his life. Along with the deaths of Pretty Boy Floyd and the maniacally determined Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, excellent) under the guns of FBI agents Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, absolutely cold and subdued under pressure) and his crew of G-men, it's a nearly perfect film moment, a stunning, iconic moment of film violence that means something.
Another fascinating aspect of the story is how it moves between eras. The bank robbers of the 1930's, many glamorous and facinating Robin Hood types like Floyd, Nelson and Dillinger who became folk heroes to a nation beset with financial woes, are giving way to more organized, sophisticated crime organizations. At the same time, law enforcement is becoming more organized and methodical with new technologies and a federal war on crime led by the fledgling FBI. These developments are the noose around Dillinger's neck, and the film is the story of how it tightens.
The cast is superb, with Depp leading the way as Dillinger, with an able assist from Marion Cotillard as his girlfriend Billie Frechette. She's stunning, bringing to mind a slightly more complicatedly gorgeous Meg Ryan. When Dillinger watches the Clark Gable gangster film Manhattan Melodrama near the end of the film, his resemblance to Gable in the part, and Cotillard's to Myrna Loy, and the way Mann intercuts the old film with Depp's reactions, is masterful. Jason Clarke has one of the most convincing and affecting death scenes I've ever seen as Dillinger associate "Red" Hamilton, and John Ortiz is impressive as gangland go-between Phil D'Andrea.
A special word about Billy Crudup: he's amazing. He plays J. Edgar Hoover as the ultimate, ruthless, brutal, calculating bulldog of law enforcement we know he was. He also plays him as just slightly fey, flattering, seductive, dangerous, which we know he also was. It's Crudup's best performance of all time, and on the heels of Watchmen, this must be his breakout year--if not as a movie star, then certainly as one of the most interesting, nuanced character actors working.
The music should get a special mention as well. Many scenes build their tension and suspense without it, and this is noticeable, and there are other scenes when the tension builds and we only notice the music part of the way in. Elliot Goldenthal's score sneaks up on you effectively, and, along with some other carefully chosen tunes, only adds to the feeling of the story.
Public Enemies is one of Michael Mann's best films, and one of Johnny Depp's best films. It's beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, gripping--an immediate classic gangster film, ranking up there with some of its models and predecessors like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, both versions of Scarface, Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets, the first two films of The Godfather, Goodfellas, True Romance, Reservoir Dogs and Donnie Brasco. It's one of the best realistic crime dramas ever made.
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