Gangster Number One
It wasn’t just the oppressive heat that was generating a buzz in the screening room; there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air, even among the most hardened critics. Teaming as it does the remarkable acting talents of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale together with the impressive directorial weight of Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider, Ali), Public Enemies was a serious contender for movie of the year before even a minute had unspooled on screen. To live up to this level of extreme expectation the film needed to go way beyond great – it needed to be perfect.
It’s the 1930s, and the Great Depression is ravaging the United States. Benefiting from this financial gloom is gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) who, together with his loyal gang, is robbing banks in and around Chicago. Becoming a popular hero thanks to his charming personality, the Dillinger legend becomes increasingly exciting as he breaks out of every jail that tries to hold him. When he falls for the beautiful Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), Dillinger decides to get out of the game with one last score – but he hadn’t reckoned on the FBI, the crime-fighting agency newly formed by J Egdar Hoover (Billy Crudup). And agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) will stop at nothing to bring down Dillinger, who has become Public Enemy Number 1.
As with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Mann’s Heat, Depp and Bale share mere minutes of screen time – and even then their confrontation is tempered by the bars of a prison cell. But, unlike in Heat, it doesn’t matter; the film is not built around the novelty of two acting behemoths appearing together, but rests on their individual talents (and those of their mighty supporting cast). Yet it is, undoubtedly, Depp’s movie; he inhabits the most time on screen and is absolutely pitch-perfect in every moment. Dillinger is a deeply compelling character, a true anti-hero that you can’t help but root for, and Depp captures every facet of his personality. As the man, he is charismatic, gentle, vulnerable even – he surely knows what fate lies ahead of him, and of all men like him, in Hoover’s brave new world. As the gangster, he is sharp, aggressive and focused, revelling in his notoriety and pushing his status as legend to the absolute limit. Wry sequences that see him wander, unnoticed, through a police station or sit among a cinema audience as his wanted image is flashed up on the big screen raise a smile, but they also speak to an era of gangsters as true celebrity. The legend is so big, that people simply don’t see the man.
Bale is solid in the role of Purvis, although his character is completely defined by his hunt for Dillinger. His personality is not fleshed out beyond his role in the FBI, although as the man who understood detective work needed to change with the times, Purvis proves to be a worthy, dedicated opponent and a figurehead for the beginning of the end of the original gangster.
Cotillard, too, is also exquisite in the role of Dillinger’s moll, Billie. She is utterly mesmerising, her chemistry with Depp giving the film its heart and also an unbearable sense of fate; as the two grab at any moments they have together, it’s clear that they understand that theirs is a love that can’t last.
The strength of Mann’s film lies not just in its jaw-dropping performances – although the Academy should certainly be looking in Depp’s direction. It’s also a breath-taking visual experience – complete with an exceptionally well-chosen and evocative 30s soundtrack – shot with high-definition cameras that put us in the heart of the action. As bullets fly, connecting with <visceral impact, as jailbreaks unfold, as banks are raided and as Dillinger and Purvis circle each other, the focus is clear, unblinking and hyper-real. Mann captures the painful reality of being a gangster just as he celebrates the glory – bullets hurt, people die and crime, folks, really doesn’t pay. And the climactic showdown, coming after Dillinger has watched Clark Gable as a gentleman crook in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama, is as moving as it is brutal, a heart-breaking lament for the golden age of the American gangster as well as an inevitable, and fitting, end to Dillinger’s story.
Intelligent, fast-paced and utterly compelling, Mann’s film makes no apologies for either its subjects or its methods – it’s up to his audience to keep up with the relentless pace, huge cast of characters and spiffy dialogue. As such, it may benefit from a second viewing, particularly as it’s so visually overwhelming that some details may be easily, and understandably, missed first time around. But it’s instantly clear that Public Enemies is a new breed of cinema with a whole new aesthetic, a beautifully crafted action movie that has brains, brawn and beauty in equal measure. Simply, stunning.