Public Enemies tells a timeless story of black, white and grey against a historical backdrop eerily similar to the troubled times in which we now live.
Public Enemies, helmed by acclaimed director Michael Mann, tells the story of the nascent FBI and legendary agent Melvin Purvis’ crusade against gangs of bankrobbers terrorizing the country during the Great Depression. Based on a book by Bryan Burroughs, the majority of Public Enemies’ action centers around the cat-and-mouse game between Purvis (Christian Bale) and legendary bankrobber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp).
Dillinger, a charming, charismatic figure had captivated public opinion by his daring raids against banks, made unpopular by the troubles the Great Depression financial crisis had heaped upon ordinary Americans. As Dillinger’s robberies and jail escapes became the stuff of legend, more gangsters join his band and other robbers crop up around the nation.
As the loot hauls and body count climbed, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) decided Dillinger’s capture would be the flash in the pan that would catapult the new agency into national prominence, and assigned the photogenic Purvis to lead the manhunt. The Public Enemies film chronicles Purvis and Dillinger’s duels, featuring exciting chases, gunfights and the eventual betrayal that led to Dillinger’s downfall.
“Public Enemies” depicts how Purvis’ early attempts to catch Dillinger end in tragic failure, and how Purvis eventual adoption of morally gray methods lead to his eventual success, but also how these methods lead to his questioning of his role as a lawman.
Only in America could a ruthless, egomaniacal bank robber evolve into a folk hero, and only someone as savvy as John Dillinger could pull off such a slick and tricky transformation. Both in life and death, the original Public Enemy #1 commanded attention and even gained the admiration of a segment of society distraught over its dismal prospects during the Great Depression and eager to see the greedy banks receive their comeuppance. The scruffy Dillinger gleefully stuck it to those smug financial institutions while thumbing his nose at a disorganized police force that continually let the outlaw slip through its fingers. Though he may not have died in a blaze of glory like some of his marauding cohorts, Dillinger's death by ambush outside Chicago's Biograph Theater one muggy summer evening in 1934 after a showing of the eerily prescient Clark Gable flick, 'Manhattan Melodrama,' possessed a striking cinematic quality that only enhanced his notoriety and legend. And so, less than a dozen years after his bug-eyed face slammed against the sidewalk, Dillinger became fodder for movie studios eager to fuel the rabidly popular gangster genre. Over the years, his story has been told in no less than eight films, with actors as varied as Lawrence Tierney, Ralph Meeker, Warren Oates, Robert Conrad, Mark Harmon, and Martin Sheen portraying the brooding fugitive. Myth and truth often blur together in these biopics, none of which can be termed definitive.
Enter director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice), whose rigorous attention to detail and precision prompted many to surmise that 'Public Enemies' just might be the ultimate Dillinger picture. Mann (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) also shuffles historical events for dramatic purposes, but the license he takes is hardly egregious. Though 'Public Enemies' isn't perfect -– someone needs to teach Mann, along with Peter Jackson, the finer points of editing –- the film does get under Dillinger's skin better than its predecessors, and that's really the point of this solid, often riveting work. Part character portrait, part homage to such classic Warner Brothers gangster sagas as 'The Roaring Twenties' and 'White Heat,' the film celebrates the glamorous, nomadic, and fatalistic criminal lifestyle, as well as Dillinger's hunger for and masterful manipulation of the spotlight, his limitless ego, intense desire for true love, and, most of all, his audacious nature. No doubt about it, the guy had balls, and without them, there would be no legend and no movie.
'Public Enemies' is not just the story of Dillinger (Johnny Depp); it's also a snapshot of a pivotal period in American history, when both crime and law enforcement became more organized and influential. Along with such colorful figures as Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Dillinger was the last of a (literally) dying breed of high profile, independent felons, and as such, his tale possesses a poetic, romantic quality that transcends his violent deeds. He meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) in a Chicago nightclub, and the two begin a passionate affair distinguished as much by devotion as love. Dillinger's obsession with Billie is eclipsed only by the fanaticism of officer Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who heads up the fledgling FBI Chicago unit and is tasked by the up-and-coming J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) with capturing the brazen bandit. Purvis, an even stiffer version of Eliot Ness, doggedly tracks Dillinger across numerous states, but the clever criminal keeps escaping his grasp and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. The Feds look like fools and Dillinger basks in the glow of the fawning media until the strong arm of the law infiltrates his ranks.
I've now seen 'Public Enemies' twice, and it definitely plays better the second time around when one can savor the film's pervasive nuances and subtleties, and zero in on the exceptional work of Depp and Cotillard. Both are raw, explosive actors who underplay to perfection, and their incendiary physical and emotional chemistry often propels 'Public Enemies' to great heights. Depp especially captures Dillinger's essence, deftly juggling a cocky, devil-may-care attitude with the fatigue and uncertainty of living constantly on the run. It's no wonder Bale seems boring by comparison. Saddled with a thankless good-guy, square-jawed role, the actor gamely impersonates the bland, tough Purvis who's learned to suppress his emotions, focus unwaveringly on his job, and take the heat for any screw-ups on his watch. Unfortunately, he's never able to release any of the pent-up tension inside, which traps Bale in a one-note performance and may explain why Purvis himself committed suicide a quarter-century after Dillinger's death.
Known for his arresting visual style, Mann makes the most of the movie's rich historical and period palette. Impeccable production values at times lend 'Public Enemies' a sumptuous feel, even when the characters are shuffling around dingy apartments and rural locales. The director also devises some thrilling shootouts, including a humdinger in the Wisconsin woods near the climax. But despite a number of action sequences – prison breaks, bank robberies, car chases – 'Public Enemies' isn't really an "action" film, and I think that's where it might disappoint some of its audience. Far more cerebral than the trailer or ad campaign would lead one to believe, the picture, like some of the jalopies on screen, revs up in fits and starts, and occasionally stalls in between. Mann, who hasn't made an under-two-hour movie since 'The Last of the Mohicans' in 1992, takes his time developing the story and characters, and sometimes struggles to maintain momentum. And for those expecting a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride, such deliberate pacing may prove difficult to take.
Yet even though we know how the Dillinger story ends, Mann fashions a taut, mesmerizing climactic sequence, using scenes from 'Manhattan Melodrama' to punctuate the doomed outlaw's predicament. We know what awaits Dillinger outside the theater doors, and we wonder if deep down maybe he does, too. This is where Mann really excels, combining style, emotion, and tension, and building upon them until they erupt into action. It's very classy filmmaking, and even if 'Public Enemies' doesn't always scale the high bar we set for it, it's a cut above most Hollywood fare and a worthy effort from a meticulous craftsman.
When done properly, period movies on Blu-ray exude a warmth and lushness that's unparalleled in the format, and though the 'Public Enemies' transfer isn't perfect, the 1080p/VC-1 encode possesses plenty of sublime scenes that showcase the beauty of high definition. The racetrack sequence, shot in the waning daylight hours, bathes the screen in a striking iridescent glow, while the vibrant splashes of color in the nightclub interiors recall the sumptuous Technicolor films of yore. All the while, a faint veneer of grain enhances the bygone look, and only becomes distractingly heavy during a number of low-lit, nocturnal scenes late in the film.
Mann shot 'Public Enemies' using HD cameras, which explains the hyper-crisp look, but the film often retains the texture and feel of celluloid. Contrast and clarity remain spot-on throughout the movie's duration, and marvelous close-ups reveal every pore, scar, and hair follicle on the actors' faces. Fabrics and small background elements are also well defined, and fleshtones always appear natural. Verdant greens add a welcome soft touch to the violent rural scenes, and blacks are so rich and inky, they almost swallow fine details. As a result, shadow delineation could be a bit clearer, but it's hardly a deal-breaker. I did notice an odd yellow blotch on a single frame around the one-hour-seven-minute mark that seemed to be some kind of print anomaly, but that's the only blemish on the otherwise spotless source material.
A bit of edge sharpening could be detected when I viewed portions of the film on my LCD display, but my primary DLP set almost completely muted the effect. Other digital enhancements and defects are completely absent. This is a terrific presentation from Universal that really makes the story of Dillinger leap off the screen.
From the get-go, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track outputs a powerful mix that adds incredible immediacy and impact to this popcorn gangster flick. From the chain gang stomping in the dirt to prison doors slamming, bass frequencies are almost constantly in play, either subtly enhancing quiet moments or busting forth with unbridled force. Gunfire in this movie isn't just snappy and directional, it's downright explosive; so much so, on more than one occasion it made me jump, like a killer emerging from the shadows in a slasher film. The shootout in the woods late in the picture sets the amp on fire, with vigorous bursts of artillery blasting from each speaker. Dynamic range is exceptional, and despite all the varied activity, distortion is never an issue.
Ambient effects may not have been as distinct as I would have liked, but the track still enjoys a good deal of surround presence, and front channel separation is flat-out superb, especially during the various period songs that play intermittently throughout 'Public Enemies.' The music of Otis Taylor, Billie Holiday, and Gene Autry enjoys excellent fidelity and depth of tone, and beautifully fills the soundscape, as does Elliot Goldenthal's score. For the most part, dialogue is clear and comprehendible, but conversation levels should have been punched up a notch. Depp and Bale mumble quite a bit, and it's occasionally difficult to make out what they're saying, and tinkering too much with the volume can be a dicey proposition when you're not quite sure when the next gun blast will hit. That's a minor quibble, though, and only detracts a tad from this superior aural effort.
A muscular supplemental package adds heft to this bold film, and the extras are both stylishly presented and packed with interesting content. And best of all, they're all in HD.
'Public Enemies' may not meet everyone's expectations, but it's a well-crafted, absorbing, wonderfully acted, and often exciting gangster film with plenty of style and substance. Terrific video and a powerful audio mix make the experience even more immersive, and a fine supplemental package enhances our knowledge of and connection to the legendary figures depicted on screen. This one's got some replay value, so fans of the genre and those who appreciate quality moviemaking shouldn't hesitate to pick it up. Recommended.