Michael Mann will forever be making movies in the shadow of his 1995 masterpiece Heat, and that’s okay; it’s one of the greatest crime movies ever made, and contains possibly the last great performances from Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It’s a nearly impossible standard to live up to, but that shouldn’t stop Mann from trying, and he evokes his great epic directly in Public Enemies, which though based on true events could very well be subtitled 1930s Heat.
Enemies is the slightly fictionalized story of the takedown of notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) in 1933-34, an effort led by stoic FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), under great pressure from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (a practically unrecognizable Billy Crudup) to bring legitimacy and efficacy to the fledgling agency. While Heat followed a dogged cop and a career criminal in equal measure, moving the two men inexorably toward a tragic confrontation, Enemies tips its scales in favor of the notoriously charismatic Dillinger, and anyone who has any sense of the true story knows that the tragedy here will be a bit one-sided.
Obviously Dillinger is the better-known figure, and his story is the most compelling. At the height of the Great Depression, Dillinger brazenly walked into banks bearing arms and walked out with bags of money, and his good looks and charm made him into a celebrity, along with other colorful crime figures like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson (both of whom figure into Enemies). The Dillinger of Enemies is dapper, cunning and prone to bursts of violence, and Depp plays him with a refreshing lack of affect after years of over-the-top performances as fey pirates, singing murderous barbers and eccentric candy-factory owners.
The problem is that Depp’s Dillinger has almost no internal life, and even his romance with humble (but hot) coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) offers little insight into his personality. The scenes between Dillinger and Frechette are some of the movie’s best—especially their first sexual encounter, an impressionistic, sensuous series of jump cuts reminiscent of a similar tryst between Colin Farrell and Gong Li in Mann’s underrated 2006 Miami Vice film. Dillinger’s pick-up lines for Frechette are sharply written, and Mann works hard to make their relationship the film’s anchor. But the facts mandate that she disappear for long stretches of the film, and the cat-and-mouse game between Dillinger and Purvis is a poor substitute.
Purvis is even more of a cipher than Dillinger—a title card at the end of the movie reveals that he quit the FBI a year after taking down Dillinger and committed suicide in 1960, but none of that inner struggle is hinted at in Bale’s smooth, subdued performance. Purvis is depicted as ruthless and opportunistic, and an eager tool of Hoover’s agenda, but he’s neither hateful nor sympathetic enough to inspire a strong reaction, and Depp plays Dillinger at such a remove that all you have to go on are his reprehensible actions, which make him an entirely worthy target of Purvis’ righteous fury.
Mann surrounds the central figures with henchmen and lawmen who come off as little more than cannon fodder, but some of their showdowns are operatic in their intensity and beauty, and demonstrate the director’s continued technical mastery. A chaotic raid on a secluded hideout culminates in muzzle flashes piercing the inky darkness, and Dillinger’s final moments, tense against the backdrop of a forgotten Clark Gable gangster movie he’s watching at a local theater, are exquisitely suspenseful and quietly moving. But Mann’s recent mania for shooting on high-definition video proves problematic in daytime scenes—blown-out backgrounds shatter the illusion of period authenticity.
Enemies may lack the complexity and impact of Heat or Mann’s other best work, but it does offer some valuable additions to the filmmaker’s ongoing chronicle of American manliness. Like Miami Vice, it’s a film whose execution often fails to live up to its ambitions, but like all of Mann’s films, it has a level of seriousness and craftsmanship that demands your attention.