Words by Sarah Tennant Director: Michael Mann Release Date: 01/07/09 Link: IMDB Halfway through Michael Mann’s foray into the fledgling days of the FBI and their attempts to bring in notorious criminals, comes the only scene twixt hunter and hunted; quietly determined FBI agent Melvin Purvis, and the charming bank-robber John Dillinger. ‘What keeps you up at nights?’, Purvis wonders. ‘Coffee’, smirks Dillinger. It’s this - the rockstar charisma, the casual waves, the corners of the lips turning up whenever faced with audiences of screaming girls and belligerent journalists - that brings an unexpected subtlety to Johnny Depp’s performance as the cocksure thief. There are no tics, no quirky accents, and no gold teeth. Depp’s Dillinger is a magnetic performance from an actor at the top of his game, and it’s his star power - remember that up until six years ago, pre-Pirates Of The Caribbean, Depp was labelled box-office poison - that has put Public Enemies square in the middle of summer blockbuster season, right in the midst of CGI robots and Megan Fox’s tits. It’s 1934 and bank-robbers like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the maniacal Babyface Nelson have become celebrities for targeting the banks blamed for bringing about the Depression (as Dillinger tells a hostage, ‘we’re here for the bank’s money, not yours’). The film’s setting has an entirely modern feel; it’s the decision to use hyper-modern filming methods that makes it so visually appealing. Mann uses high-definition digital film, crash zooms, tracking shots and rejects the boring old steadicam in favour of the shakey camera shot; this film’s technical aspects have more in common with a hip documentary. There’s a brilliant moment where Dillinger walks out of his safe-house as the sound dips, only for it to rise again in a swoop of Elliot Goldenthal’s dramatic score, as he walks up the stairs of another bank, preparing to do business. So why does he rob banks? He does it for the thrill, for the celebrity status. He leans casually on a cop’s shoulder and makes jokey banter with questioning journalists. He breaks out of prison and then waltzes straight into the Chicago Police Department’s Dillinger Squad room because he can. Mann follows him faithfully throughout, even at the expense of Christian Bale’s reserved and sincere performance as Purvis (oddly, Bale’s presence in the film has been played down by the marketing); the agent’s increasing determination to catch Dillinger is a plot-point left by the wayside as the under-developed romance between the robber and Marion Cotillard’s doe-eyed Billie Frechette is given dominance as a driving force for many of Dillinger’s actions. The comparisons with Mann’s 1995 classic Heat are inevitable. A determined cop on the trail of a professional thief is hardly breaking new ground in cinema, but with this level of talent on display - Mann himself, and the teams of De Niro/Pacino and Depp/Bale - there’s added pressure on Mann to equate the earlier film’s success. The relationship between De Niro and Pacino is part of what made Heat so compelling. And here’s the major difference between Heat and Enemies. Heat’s cop and robber were equal amounts protagonist and antagonist; Mann explored the psyches and motivations of both men. In Public Enemies, the characters are never fully realised. Dillinger is a hurricane, tearing through the film with a roguish force, and yet…there is no real method to his suave madness. A scene showing Purvis descending into brutality and allowing another agent to torture a gravely wounded con in an attempt to discover Dillinger’s location does not have the emotional impact it should; little is made of the pressure on the FBI to catch the criminals, despite a memorable (albeit brief) performance from Dr. Manhattan himself, Billy Crudup, as J. Edgar Hoover. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, meanwhile, doesn’t have much to do for the vast majority of the film except flirt with Depp. Which is nice work, if you can get it. When the action kicks in, Public Enemies is, frankly, exhilarating. Little focus is placed on the actual robberies; this is, after all, a film about Dillinger, and not about his somewhat illegal hobby, and Mann’s decision to gloss over the scenes makes sense. One of the film’s standout moments comes from the epic shootout at Little Bohemia Lodge, between FBI agents and Dillinger’s gang. If you’re looking for any more Heat comparisons, here’s your next one: this battle is the equivalent of Heat’s audacious (and botched) bank robbery. It’s fifteen-minutes of tensely-shot cinema,; the film’s money shot, if you will. Mann earned his directing badge on the sets of various 1970s cop shows, and he’s nothing but a big fat show-off in scenes like this. Given the film’s fleeting dalliance with historical fact, even those completely familiar with Dillinger’s story are guaranteed to come down with edge-of-your-seat-itis. Public Enemies is anything but perfect. No sooner does the script flaunt an assured intelligence, it can drop a mother of a clichéd clanger. Witness: Dillinger’s ‘one last job’ when he’s on a downfall; the ‘we’re going to get killed if we carry on’, ‘don’t worry, we’ll go to Reno tomorrow and everything will be fine’ conversation five minutes before the feds move in and someone puts out someone else’s eye, or something. (While we’re on the subject, why do criminals always use Reno as their escape plan? Is the Reno tourist board happy with all the cinematic robbers shacking up there?) Despite its audience deception - a summer blockbuster it ain’t - the film never once strays into ‘boring’ territory. Watch Johnny Depp, recently-anointed Greatest Actor Of His Generation, unable to appear in a film without making it enjoyable. He’s having a ball in the role, and assisting him is a film that embraces the talents of everyone involved; maybe not entirely, but gratefully and smartly. All the recommendation you need comes from the scene of Dillinger’s visit to a cinema; the gang’s mug-shots are displayed onscreen, as a voiceover encourages the audience to check if any of the members are sitting amongst them. Dillinger’s smug grin as he realises no-one has noticed them is one of those moments of cinematic magic that makes you glad to be a film fan. Rating: 8/10