Public Enemies is Michael Mann's third film in a row to embrace the wonders of Digital HD. This in neither here nor there in regards to the quality of the film, but it seems worth noting that Michael Mann seems to be the first established director whose committed to the brave new world of digital film-making. Going in I thought it would be a distraction, particularly given the fact that this a period piece, but actually once one is adjusted it gives the film an urgency and a grounding in reality that is often missing from films of this type. But PE (my favorite abbreviation ever) is far from Mann's best work, and in all honesty a slight disappointment. It has its moments and its strengths, but they are too sparse to make this the classic it perhaps should have been, what with all the talent connected to it.
The film, instead of being a life spanning biopic as most of its type are, focuses entirely on the last year of The titular public enemy John Dillinger's life. This is a good decision in my book, because it allows the character to take center stage rather than the narrative, and in a case like this I think thats the best way to do it. Sadly Dillinger's characterization is slightly lacking in the script and it shows on screen. Essentially leaving Johnny Depp no choice but to play the character as a closed book. And as a consequence Depp is only good when he could have been great, forcing me to retract my previous prediction that Depp would finally take his Oscar for this role. He won't, and more importantly doesn't really deserve to. There were a couple of moments hinting at what the character could have been, such as Dillinger's mini press conference as he is dragged through the jail. But it was all promise and no delivery in the end. Acting wise, the film actually belongs to Christian Bale's dogged lawman Melvin Purvis. Its an archetype of a character, to be sure, but Bale lends it a humanity and warmth, something I did not expect from such a perfunctory role. Bale did a lot with a little here and that is to be commended. Marion Cotillard as Dillinger's love Billie Frechette, gets a slight jip, featuring prominently in parts but taking a backseat for the bulk of the picture. She is good and shows that her Oscar win last year was far from a fluke. No other part gets much of a chance to register really, as Dillinger's band of cohorts becoming nothing more then canon fodder to Mann. Billy Crudup does an interesting character turn as J Edgar Hoover, and Stephen Graham certainly captures the bloodthirstiness of Baby Face Nelson, but doesn't quite master the accent. The main strength of the film though, as with all of Mann's films really, is the action. Nobody handles a gunfight quite like Mann does, and the set pieces in this film are quite spectacular, in particular a shootout set at a cabin and its surrounding woods is as exhilarating as anything Mann has done before. If only Mann understood how to create characters as spellbounding as his action scenes he would be a truly great director. But for me he is about due for another classic, and this isn't it. Don't get me wrong, its a good, at times great film but given the talent in front of the camera and behind it, PE must go down as a disappointment.