Indiana State Prison in 1933 and bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) has been taken to be incarcerated there, but what the guards and authorities don't know is he has a plan to spring members of his gang from the establishment. No sooner is he is inside than he has produced a gun and started threatening those guards, and they make a quick getaway, if not an entirely successful one as they are being shot at all the while, and one of their number is fatally wounded. Not Dillinger, mind you, he survives to fight another day as he emerges as America's Public Enemy Number One...
It's safe to say director Michael Mann knows his way around a crime movie, but he wanted to expand his range and hark back to the golden age of the gangster flick when the likes of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart were staking out territories as the most popular bad guys audiences really loved on the silver screen. To render this as modern feeling as possible, as if viewers of the 21st Century were seeing the events as freshly as those of the thirties would have experienced not only the entertainment of the day but the news stories, Mann employed a shot-on-video, high definition and handheld camera look to his story.
Which might have sounded good on paper, but oddly those modern audiences resisted it, with many complaining the director's innovative style was all wrong for a period piece leading to much grumbling among those who felt Mann was losing it in his advancing years. But in a way he had the right idea, as it wasn't such an egregious notion to create something from the past in the mode of it really happening as you watch, as if those intervening years meant nothing when the people depicted were once as alive and kicking as you watching are now. The biggest problem Public Enemies suffered was its depiction of Dillinger as a heroic figure, and allowing lawman Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to be outshone.
The point would appear to be Dillinger was a celebrity in The Depression, while the law was not populated with such charismatic personalities though we do see J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) beginning to establish himself. But even with an actor of Bale's magnetism, he was far too overshadowed in a role that he was overqualified for, while Depp was to be applauded for testing his fanbase by playing such a scuzzy character, but still came across as someone we should be supporting. Dillinger was no Robin Hood figure in real life, though the public genuinely did have a fascination with him and the other gangsters we see here, and it's this dichotomy which scuppers the tone of a film which cannot make its mind up how moral or immoral it's meant to be.
Mann had packed his cast with recognisable faces, as if to underline the movie star status of the players in this drama in the eyes of those who studied the newspaper headlines or newsreels of the era, but Depp was a curious choice. Not that he was bad in the role, as he contained the right amount of attraction and capacity for unpleasantness, but you only had to look at what tough guy actors such as Lawrence Tierney or Warren Oates had done with the part previously to appreciate Depp wasn't really that great a fit with Dillinger. And Mann, too, for all his evident enthusiasm for the subject, was having trouble conveying his passion to the audience, as unless you worshipped everything he made, and there were a fair few of those who did, you would find yourself waiting to see what the big deal about this was aside from watching yet another shootout. Only at the end did Mann assert his power, with the editing of the screening of Manahttan Melodrama Dillinger attended masterfully handled. Music by Elliot Goldenthal.
American writer/director whose flashy, dramatic style has made for considerable commerical success on the big and small screen. After writing for television during the late 70s, he made his debut with the thriller Thief. The Keep was a failed horror adaptation, but Mann's TV cop show Miami Vice was a massive international success, while 1986's Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, was one of the decade's best thrillers.
Last of the Mohicans was a rip-roaring period adventure, Heat a dynamic if overlong cops 'n' robbers story, and The Insider a gripping real-life conspiracy thriller. 2002's Ali, Mann's much-touted biography of the legendary boxer, was a bit of an anti-climax, but as ever, stylishly rendered. Mann's next film was the thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as a ruthless contract killer, and his big screen updating of Miami Vice divided opinion, as did his vintage gangster recreation Public Enemies. His cyber-thriller Blackhat was a resounding flop.