Based on author Bryan Burrough's ambitious tome Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43, director Michael Mann's sprawling historical crime drama follows the efforts of top FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale ) in capturing notorious bank robber John Dillinger. A folk hero to the American public thanks to his penchant for robbing the banks that many people believed responsible for the Great Depression, charming bandit Dillinger (Johnny Depp) was virtually unstoppable at the height of his criminal career; no jail could hold him, and his exploits endeared him to the common people while making headlines across the country. J. Edgar Hoover's (Billy Crudup) FBI was just coming into formation, and what better way for the ambitious lawman to transform his fledgling Bureau of Investigation into a national police force than to capture the gang that always gets away? Determined to bust Dillinger and his crew, which also included sociopathic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), Hoover christened Dillinger the country's very first Public Enemy Number One, and unleashed Purvis to take them down by whatever means necessary. But Purvis underestimated Dillinger's ingenuity as a master criminal, and after embarking on a frantic series of chases and shoot-outs, the dashing agent humbly surmised that he was in over his head. Outwitted and outgunned, Purvis knew that his only hope for busting Dillinger's gang was to baptize a crew of Western ex-lawmen as official agents, and orchestrate a series of betrayals so cunning that even America's criminal mastermind wouldn't know what hit him. Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum, and Stephen Dorff co-star. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi
Movie Level Themes
Crime Sprees, On the Run, Bank Robbery
Movie Level Tones
Tense, Stylized, Gritty, Atmospheric
Larger Than Life: Adversaries
Michael Mann: Making Public Enemies
Last of the Legendary Outlaws
On Dillinger's Trail: The Real Locations
Feature Commentary with Director Michael Mann
D-Box Motion Enabled
Michael Mann's 2009 crime thriller Public Enemies tells the story of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger -- in the most brooding and serious terms possible. You might think that a movie about one of the most beloved badasses in criminal history would be all about explosiveness and fun. But, then again, you'd probably think the same thing about a movie adaptation of Miami Vice. Exuberance just isn't Mann's style, and for people who want a little payoff or satisfaction in their two and a half hours of plodding, teeth-grinding intensity, that will be a problem. But for people who loved Heat, this is a tour de force.
Johnny Depp stars as Dillinger, whom we first meet as he's leading a violent nine-man escape from Indiana State Prison. He and his gang soon get down to work robbing banks, relying on a complex network of syndicate cooperation and one-step-ahead criminal smarts to stay out of jail. They fill their off-hours with swanky Chicago parties, which is how Dillinger meets a dark-haired minx named Billie (played by Marion Cotillard, whose usual high-caliber acting chops are occasionally belied by her extremely inconsistent accent), and falls immediately in love. Sadly, we know that their romance is probably of the doomed variety, as Dillinger -- despite becoming a celebrity for the anti-heroic times -- is the most wanted man in America, and J. Edgar Hoover (played with a rapid-fire, old-timey accent and impressive fat-face by Billy Crudup) has created an entire federal task force devoted to his capture, led by stand-up Southern gentleman Melvin Purvis (played with even greater solemnity than usual by Christian Bale).
The real-life Dillinger was a full-on rock star in the desperate 1930s, when people were ecstatic to see someone bilk the institutions that had let so many down. Depp's performance as the swaggering folk hero offers a lot of nuance in this regard, depicting the renegade as a natural celebrity, effortlessly charismatic and smirkingly self-aware. Dillinger was, after all, known to have peppered his stick-ups with biting quips and counter-jumping acrobatics that he copied from the movies. And yet, it stays clear in Depp's portrayal that he's an authentic outlaw, a reasonably skilled and certainly accomplished gangster, not just some Bonnie and Clyde-type newsreel cad -- all buzz with no rap sheet to back it up.
There are plenty of scenes devoted to what would generally be considered gangster-movie badassery, stuff like police shoot-outs conducted largely with machine guns and bank heists featuring Depp in a fedora and overcoat, wielding two hand cannons. But while these moments are impressive, and even sometimes awesome, like everything else in Public Enemies, they're also often joyless. Mann just isn't interested in celebration; almost everything is deliberate and grinding -- an idea of realism that never builds toward triumph, or even tragedy. If movies like Collateral and The Insider are anything to go by, it would seem pretty clear that Mann just prefers tension to excitement, and Public Enemies proves once again that he can create beautiful cinema out of this perspective. But for audiences who can't bring themselves to share his rather sedate vision, beauty might not be enough. ~ Cammila Albertson, Rovi
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