By Jesse Espana
In light of TIFF’s Neon Nights: The Films of Michael Mann, Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale hit Toronto for a limited screening of Mann’s most recent work.
Johnny Depp plays the notoriously liable but equally as dangerous John Dillinger. At the height of the Great Depression, bank robberies are at an all-time high. The film follows Dillinger and his gang’s exploits in America during this time as well sheds light on the beginnings of the FBI.
The film is a presented in a very intricate way, through Mann’s highly technical use of the camera, I felt very involved in what was taking place on the screen. The action sequences were loud, frantic and powerful, the latter was enhanced by the weaponry seen through the film. There is very little small time action throughout Public Enemies. If not Tommy Guns and rifles going off, ripping through everything in their paths, then the film was building the relationships among the characters.
Depp’s Dillinger is extremely likeable but on occasion felt too serious for the way he was perceived in America at the time. Throughout the telling of this story, Dillinger taunts authorities by walking around major cities openly, even walking through the FBI near the height of his wanted status. It was this playful nature possessed by Dillinger that would have allowed for Depp to play with the character a bit more. I also felt there were too many times when the camera remained on his face while he was in deep thought, transfixed on Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette, or emotionally in distress.
Speaking of Cotillard, her performance was also somewhat flawed. This could be in large part due to the direction given or the script itself, but her character seemed too easily convinced to remain with Dillinger despite her obvious misgivings about their relationship. She played a lower to middle class woman with nothing to walk away from, but still had a level head on her shoulders, often saying that she wouldn’t doubt she’d be back at the hotel where she worked coat check. She insinuates on numerous occasions that Dillinger’s lifestyle would leave her behind, so it was hard to believe that she would so willing continue to tag along. She and Depp didn’t share much screen time, and even when they did it wasn’t anything overly binding.
Christian Bale also stars in Public Enemies as Agent Melvin Purvis. It’s this portrayal that really made this movie work. Purvis was strict and tactical, but desperate in cracking down on Dillinger and the gang. The audience watches as he struggles with his less qualified fellow agents, and struggle with himself as he comes face to face with the deaths of many agents as well as pedestrians. Bale did a great job in showing the mental anguish that Purvis experienced during this violent time in American history, as well as the stress that came from such law enforcement work that was only in it’s infancy.
Bale’s highlight scene came when he met Dillinger for the first time in jail. The two toy with each other and it shines as a moment when the playfulness of Dillinger slams right into Purvis’ discipline.
The film moved somewhat well, feeling a bit drawn out by the end. What made up for this was, once again, Michael Mann’s top notch camera work. The shootouts were done on such a large scale that they felt like a war zone, and Dillinger’s sneak outs from jail or breakins to vaults felt quick and never dragged. I found a lot of the handheld work was done considerably well, especially during these tight and frantic scenes with Depp.
Overall, Public Enemies is an enjoyable crime film, retelling the notorious life of John Dillinger. The portrayals are well done but at times felt a bit too serious for Depp and too weak and innocent for Cotillard. It’s an interesting look for those fascinated by crime films, as the characters are often faced with harsh realities as the story progresses. However, audiences will likely agree there was only one way a story like this could end.