Michael Mann has produced some of Hollywood’s finest thrillers of the past couple of decades – just think back to Manhunter and Heat – but his gangster biopic Public Enemies doesn’t find him at the top of his game.
The movie tells the story of Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger, the bank robber whose freewheeling crime spree across America’s Midwest turned him into a celebrity and folk hero. As played here by a charismatic Johnny Depp, he’s a seductively romantic figure too – particularly when seen through the eyes of hatcheck-girl turned gangster’s moll Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, the Oscar-winning star of La Vie en Rose).
But Dillinger’s notoriety attracts the attention of J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who seeks to win support for his newly formed FBI by bringing down the man dubbed America’s first-ever Public Enemy Number One. So Hoover assigns straight-arrow agent Melvin Purvis (a typically dour Christian Bale) to run Dillinger and his gang to ground.
The contest between cop and crook, hunter and hunted, crops up again and again in Mann’s work, but the duel of wits between Depp’s cavalier Dillinger and Bale’s dogged Purvis never achieves the electricity of the face-off between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat.
The shoot-outs between Public Enemies’ lawmen and outlaws, however, do find Mann on top form. He depicts the giddy excesses and fearsome violence of Dillinger’s raids with savage grace and the gunfights have a raw, bludgeoning power that leaves the viewer reeling. But I’m not fully convinced by Mann’s decision to shoot Public Enemies using high-definition digital cameras. While the photography in some scenes gives Dillinger’s story the burnished quality of myth, in others the hand-held digital cameras drain the life from the screen and leave the film looking like cheap and nasty TV.
Released on 2nd November.
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