Pretty much everybody suffers when there's a recession. Times may be tough now, but in America back in the Thirties they were even tougher. With little to comfort them in their day to day lives and little in the way of hope for the future, people clung on to the promise of the American Dream - that any ordinary man might somehow make a success out of his life. One man seemed to embody that dream. His name was John Dillinger. He was also Public Enemy No. 1.

A legend in his own lifetime, Dillinger is a natural subject for Hollywood and indeed he's been the subject of several films before now, but none of them as ambitious as this one. Only the fourth film this decade directed by the once-prolific Mann, it's a superb return to form, demonstrating the ability to humanise cinematic violence which characterised the best work in his career. It has a dream cast, all on fine form.

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The old-fashioned nature of the cars and guns does nothing to diminish the impact of the action sequences, but it's the drama that really grips, drawing on a complex moral subtext. Dillinger may be a hero to many, and very easy to like, but he also kills people, and the gangsters he works with kill a lot more. Up against him is forward-thinking FBI agent Melvin Purvis, determined to stop him but tortured by the cost. If you think you'd have no qualms about torturing a terrorist suspect to extract information, ask yourself what you'd do if it was a woman half your size who only wanted to protect the man she loved.

As the woman who steals Dillinger's heart, Marion Cotillard shows that her Oscar-winning turn in La Vie En Rose was no fluke. There's very little screen time given to the romance over the course of this long film, but it's still very powerful, not least because of the complexity and vibrance of Cotillard's performance. Christian Bale is also very good as Purvis, a man caught up in a subtler tragedy of his own. He wisely underplays the role and shows what he's capable of when he's playing a man rather than a hero. Though he's in the less immediately sympathetic role, he has the weight and the quiet authority to give the film the balance it needs.

That said, this film belongs to Johnny Depp. He has rarely been better. Dillinger could easily have been played for kicks, relying on his well-known sense of style, the simple brilliance of his plans and schemes, and his prowess with a gun. But Mann has chosen to linger on his face, to present him as a person. Disappearing into a role like this is difficult for an A-list actor but Depp has clearly devoted himself to getting it right, with tiny gestures and ways of moving that immediately recall the real Dillinger, also giving him a depth of character that keeps viewers rooting for him throughout despite everything. Ultimately, it isn't only Dillinger he's playing - he's providing a face and voice for everybody who struggled during the Depression, everybody who dreamed of better things, and this particular anti-hero's obvious flaws make him no less relevant.

Attention to detail has given this film a rich sense of period and Mann really knows how to get the best out of setting as well as character. During one action sequence we can't see much of what Depp's doing but watching a cosy little room get ripped to pieces by bullets stands in effectively for what's happening to his peace of mind. There's also a haunting period score with songs by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald evoking other stories of the struggle against poverty and contributing to an overall tone of melancholy romance.

The one big problem with this film is a technical one. Mann has said that he wanted to make viewers feel they were really there, to avoid giving it a Hollywood gloss. That's apparently the reason why he shot a lot of it on DV, but why he chose such low-quality DV remains a mystery. It'll probably look a lot better on a small screen but in the cinema large portions of it just look shoddy. There's also poor lighting work which makes things look more theatrical than realistic. This is a real shame as it brings down what might have been a five star film. Nonetheless, with such terrific performances and a story as relevant today as it has ever been, Public Enemies is still well worth checking out.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2009
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The FBI is charged with hunting down Public Enemy No. 1: John Dillinger.
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Stephen Carty ***

Director: Michael Mann

Writer: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Graham, David Wenham, James Russo, Billy Crudup, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, Channing Tatum

Year: 2009

Runtime: 140 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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