“Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”
Michael Mann's Public Enemies dramatizes the criminal escapades of an individualistic, veteran and expert criminal. This man is a devout loner who lives by his own ethical code, which is heavily informed by the associations and few friendships he has forged throughout his life. Most especially, the man's mindset has been significantly molded by a sage older criminal whose borderline philosophical musings and extrapolations of particular quandaries have left an indelible imprint on the entire being of Mann's protagonist. This protagonist gradually loses his insularly-ensured bearings when he finally falls for a lovely, irresistibly alluring woman. The woman's new presence in the criminal's life threatens to compromise his previously secured moorings. Meanwhile, a dogged man of the law relentlessly tracks the criminal down, either wittingly or inadvertently using the woman as the bait the criminal cannot resist pursuing. Extravagant firefights punctuate the action, with one particularly momentous exchange representing the picture's climax from which everything else hurtles throughout the film's remaining running time.
Unfortunately, Mann has told this same basic story before, and he has done so with a more confident bravado. If the above outline serves as the substratum in which Mann may judiciously service his own thematic obsessions, it is regrettable that Public Enemies comes across as something approximating an artist's “leftovers.” There is a nearly humorous irony to this predicament, as well: in finally creating a sprawling crime drama based on historical figures, and most infamously John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Mann is repeating himself with an historical drama after plying his trade to sheer fiction. (Mann has essayed historical narratives before—with The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider and Ali—but those films did not follow the trademark Mann crime template of such films as Thief, Heat and to far lesser extents Collateral and Miami Vice.) In essence, Mann has already told the story of Dillinger—and in Heat he definitively channeled the 1930s bank-robber's tenacity and wiliness when creating Robert De Niro's adroit criminal. So now, when Public Enemies unspools, moments associated with Heat or even Mann's other cops-and-robbers tales, repeat themselves: Depp's Dillinger coolly but almost lethally assaults a foolish criminal whose actions led to completely unnecessary tragedy in a scene which cannot not recall De Niro's punishment for a roguish thug his crew ill-advisedly picked up; Dillinger is thwarted by the self-serving mob which had provided safe harbor for his gang; Dillinger must choose whether or not to simply walk away from the love of his life, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard); a climactic denouement is afforded the weightiness of Greek tragedy and is apparently even given the same musical theme from Mann's 1995 opus (always stay until the lights come up and watch the credits carefully).
So much of Public Enemies is finely tuned and tautly-mounted. Repeatedly, Mann stages elaborate set-pieces of suspense, movement and action—and then repeats the repetition. For the filmmaker behind the bank-robbery apogee of Heat or the LA Koreatown nightclub sequence in Collateral, several of these scenes must resemble an accomplished bodybuilder exercising with light free weights as warm-ups. When Mann finally closes the picture's Act II with a sprawling, protracted nighttime gun battle—easily the film's most rivetingly commoving stretch—it appears the veteran has begun the more challenging portion of his routine. Finally, Mann's choices such as shooting in digital with a grittier, hand-held camera perspective, seem to pay off. Earlier, these decisions seemed to conjure a dusty, seemingly incongruous 1930s home movie. Camera bumps and shakes contrast sharply with the more traditional crystallized, tinctorial palette Mann had previously employed. Public Enemies strives to be the scabrous Saving Private Ryan alternative to the picturesque gracefulness of its 1930s crime saga antecedents of the modern era such as Bonnie and Clyde, Miller's Crossing and Road to Perdition. By opting for an admittedly more potently sui generis texture in which to tell their story, Mann and his cinematographer Dante Spinotti craft an immediately controversial film. Whether or not the decisions aid Mann and Spinotti in forging a piece both rooted in past excursions into the 1930s crime-laden tales of Americana such as the aforementioned pictures or other efforts to tell the Dillinger story in the 1940s Dillinger or the John Milius action picture of the same title and simultaneously reaching for a kind of abstractly-defined orphism of being remains questionable.
In other areas, Mann's trademark excesses, weaknesses and undeniable dexterity all mix with one another to create a film of frustrating but engaging dynamism. Mann, who collaborated on the screenplay with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman—based on Bryan Burrough's recent book, “Public Enemies”—is occasionally guilty of mistaking mood for meaning, and shortchanges the characters for whom he perspicuously cares in favor of following the exhilarating swings in momentum between cops and robbers in one gun battle after another. Depp's Dillinger is the picture's most thoroughly detailed and excavated character, yet even he remains mysteriously divorced from much of the film's subtextual focuses. He tells one man to keep his money—like Clyde in the 1967 Arthur Penn picture, Dillinger and his crew are only after the bank's money—but when he tells another criminal that the public matters, it remains unresolved whether Dillinger thinks so because it is simply advantageous or because he has some burning vestiges of principles. At a time in which banks are found liable and in some instances once again blamed for a financial crisis, Mann's film delivers the typical staging of the big banks against the little people with Dillinger and his cohorts representing an approximation of a necessary evil. Dillinger's cohorts, however, almost all remain astoundingly remote—the one exception being Jason Clarke's beautifully rendered John 'Red' Hamilton. On the legal side of things, Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis and Billy Crudup's J. Edgar Hoover are afforded just enough screentime to be presented as full, flesh-and-blood characters, but Bale in particular is—yet again—hamstrung by an underwritten role with which he must work.
Somewhat surprisingly, it is Cotillard who stands out. Her dialogue is uneven at times, but she and Depp create some dazzling chemistry with one another. Mann recycles pieces of previous romances in his films, fitting Dillinger-Frechette into his paradigm. This does not inflict any damage to the couple's verisimilitude; since Mann has fundamentally told Dillinger's story before in Thief and Heat, to obviously varying degrees, this similar rendering of love fits, and would appear to be largely historically correct. It may indeed be an instance in which Mann—as with the rest of the film—has simply found the real-life, historical story that aligns with his passionate interests and obsessions.
There is a limitation to that, and naturally history is massaged by Hollywood once more to bend to Mann's vision. Purvis is presented as a consummate professional so as to stand as a palatable Mann “cop protagonist” to pursue the criminal mastermind. Babyface Nelson is gunned down before history informs he was. Yet Hollywood deserves immense credit in certain venues of personal cognizance, something Mann outright acknowledges in the film's denouement. Depp and Mann finally seem to reach the height to which they were so long before striving earlier in the film. As Dillinger sits in a hot theatre watching W.S. Van Dyke's Manhattan Melodrama (George Cukor worked on the film in an uncredited capacity as well), Depp's slight facial expressions tell the tale. It is a beautiful, superbly realized cinematic moment: cinema commenting on itself, and its virtues and powers. Depp—who here delivers the best part of his performance, and probably the single best stretch of acting in years—quietly, amusedly, watches the picture, and Mann's timing with cutting to Manhattan Melodrama's figures is expert. Dillinger sees himself in Clark Gable's strangely heroic gangster and naturally he, like so many male lovers of film, sees in Myrna Loy's lovely countenance, enshrouded by her gleaming hair, the woman he loves. He also peers into his future and it is a coup de grace of visual storytelling. Public Enemies may not go anywhere Mann has not gone to before, but for that moment, it certainly caught its reflection and tipped its hat to the audience in a manner which speaks volumes about the place of cinema in every moviegoer's life.