I love everything about Michael Mann’s films. From his artful camera work to his pulsating screenplays, he always gets it right. In his new film, “Public Enemies,” Mann outdoes himself, as does his entire cast — some of the coolest guys in Hollywood. But, it is Johnny Depp’s performance as public enemy No. 1, John Dillinger, which catapults this impeccable film to sheer perfection.
Opening with a sensational prison break, the film starts out with a bang and never lets up. The ever-constant crackle of machine gunfire keeps the adrenaline pumping. After Dillinger springs his gang out of the Indiana State Penitentiary, they head for Chicago to rob some banks. While there he meets the beautiful Billie Frechette (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) and sparks, rather than bullets, fly for a while.
J. Edgar Hoover (played dead-on by Billy Crudup) is in the process of reinventing the FBI and is not pleased with Dillinger’s success or popularity. Enter Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale in a rare, restrained performance), Hoover’s golden boy who relentlessly pursues Dillinger, hellbent on taking him down. He nearly does so during the infamous 1934 raid at the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin (Mann shot this scene at the actual location). Dillinger narrowly escapes, but due to his Achilles heel (Billie), he begins making errors in judgment, which leads to his ultimate demise outside of the Biograph Theater.
Mann hooks up with cinematographer Dante Spinotti for the fifth time, shooting in high-definition digital.
The pair was responsible for the unforgettable bank robbery scene in “Heat.” In “Public Enemies,” the bank-robbery sequences go beyond visually stunning, becoming works of art while the camera captures the seemingly choreographed movement of the actors. The image of Depp with a gun in each hand, his long, flowing gabardine overcoat fanning out behind him while leaping over a railing is one I’ll never forget.
It’s the epitome of a great shot.
Fifteen people are credited with casting “Public Enemies.” Some of the best actors today (Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Leelee Sobieski, Lili Taylor) have little screen time but oodles of impact. Known for his acute attention to detail and eclectic taste when scoring, Mann pulls out all the stops in this film. Watch for Diana Krall belting out “Bye Bye Blackbird” and vintage everything.
There’s a scene at the end of “Public Enemies” when Dillinger’s watching “Manhattan Melodrama,” starring Clark Gable as a gangster. Mann’s camera is focused on Depp’s face, which sports a wry grin. It’s one of those priceless pieces of filmmaking that makes watching great films an extraordinary experience.
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