Director Michael Mann has already made one of the great crime movies, 1995's Heat, and I was really hoping that his Public Enemies would be able to ride alongside it in greatness. It doesn't, but it's still a damn fine movie. It stars Johnny Depp as infamous 1930's bank robber John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his girl Billie, and Christian Bale as FBI man Melvin Purvis. Purvis had previously taken down Pretty Boy Floyd, and would also take out Baby Face Nelson in the process of hunting "Public Enemy #1" Dillinger.
Although he's now 15 years older than Dillinger was when he died, Johnny Depp is completely believable as the charismatic bank robber. When he tells Billie "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else you need to know?", it's spouted off in such a way that we can't help but think this vicious bank robber is a cool guy. Mann and Depp don't sugar coat Dillinger either, during a robbery a bank manager tries to stall by fumbling with the keys to open the vault, likely in hopes that the cops would be there shortly. Dillinger whips him with his pistol and says "You can either be a dead hero, or a live coward. Open it up." Mann also doesn't make Purvis into a saint, showing he and his guys beating people, and withholding medicine from a man who's been shot in the head because he can give them information about Dillinger's whereabouts.
One of my biggest complaints in the past few years about action movies, or in this case movies with action scenes, is the proliferation of the "shaky cam". It's not a new technique or anything, it's simply badly done hand-held camera work, but it seems to be everywhere now. Mann doesn't use it a lot, but there were more than a couple of times that I was wishing someone knew how to work a camera so that I could visually understand what the hell was happening on screen. It's nowhere near Paul Greengrass's movie ruining use of it in the last two Bourne movies, but when I can't even focus on an actors face because the camera is jostling so much, it becomes a problem for me as a viewer.
Depp, as I mentioned, is terrific here. Not that that should surprise anyone, he's one of the best actors in the world. Depp lets us into Dillinger's mind as he initially doesn't think about anything beyond today (or maybe tomorrow), but slowly starts to think about a "final score" and a retirement as he finds something he cares about so deeply, Billie. Christian Bale is solid, if unremarkable, as Purvis. We get that he's determined to take Dillinger down, but I didn't feel Bale hinting at anything deeper than the surface the way Depp did. Marion Cotillard, who gave us one of the great performances of all time with her Oscar-winning role in La Vie en Rose, is a little disappointing here. She's not bad, but she isn't special and doesn't make Billie anything more than the standard gangster's girl type.
It seems like I did a lot of complaining in this review, but I really do like the movie a lot. There are certainly some below-par things in it (and I didn't even mention the often misplaced score), but I certainly would recommend it to anyone who asked. Mann fills the screen with such wonderful period details that the movie has a great sort of lived-in feel that is crucial to period pieces. It just feels like maybe it could've been more, like it could've been a truly great movie but just didn't quite make it. Still, you could do a lot worse than a movie that's only "really good".