Michael Mann, the single greatest living director of crime dramas (Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) is thankfully back with a gangster tale that is unlike anything you’ve seen from the genre so far.
How can you make a movie about the most notorious American of the 1930s and not have it riled with clichés? I’m not sure, but Mann sure as hell knows. There isn’t a frame of unoriginality in Public Enemies, in fact, it’s far from what the Blockbuster crowd may be expecting. But more on that later.
John Dillinger spent most of his early life in jail, which acted as his schooling for criminality. (It’s funny, you know, that our jails actually make better criminals.) In jail, Dillinger met a slew of crooks just like him and once released, they wrecked havoc across the country, robbing banks that he felt had been unfair to the common man during the Depression.
As Dillinger, Johnny Depp delivers some of his best career work. Keeping a cool, restrained demeanor, he makes Dillinger not only likeable, but scary as hell as well. Take note, for instance, every scene Depp has with Marion Cotillard (Best Actress winner for La Vie en Rose two years ago), who plays Dillinger’s love interest, Billie Frechette. In those scenes I actually thought Depp was in love with Cotillard. His intensity bleeds through his every word. There is a moment when Cotillard is being apprehended by authorities and Depp gets out of a car, wanting to stop it, but knowing he can’t. It’s the scene that gets actors nominated for Oscars.
Dillinger was being pursued by clean-cut FBI agent Melvin Purvis, played here with familiar greatness by Christian Bale. In fact, Purvis himself was being pressured by a little guy named J. Edgar Hoover (a brilliant, Oscar-worthy Billy Crudup) to catch Dillinger, breathing down Purvis’ neck at the slightest slip-up.
If you’ve seen a Michael Mann movie before, you know the guy can direct a thrilling action sequence. But, that isn’t his main concern. He is more concerned with the story of his characters, who they are, what they want, how they want it, etc. Having said that, Public Enemies has a slew of spectacularly staged action scenes (the most thrilling of the year, in fact) but it isn’t an action movie. It’s a film that focuses on human drama, on a few short months in Dillinger’s life, which means no backstory at all.
It’s also the best looking film of the year with cinematographer Dante Spinotti shooting in gorgeous HD, a technique Mann has mastered with his recent films. The costumes are great, the dialogue is hidden yet snappy, and the gunfights will pin you to your seat.
Even if you already know what happened to Dillinger, you’re in for a fresh look at how it went down. In addition, Public Enemies boasts a denouement (n: resolve after the climax) that left me speechless, and could very well earn Cotillard another Oscar. Get ready to be blown away. A