If you’ve seen Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, the events of John Milius’ biopic of bank robber John Dillinger will be familiar enough: ballsy prison escapes, ferocious shoot-outs and that fatal appointment with Melvin Purvis outside the Biograph Theatre.
Everything else, though, looks very different. For starters, where are pretty-boy charmers Depp and Bale? Milius’ Dillinger is feral, filthy Warren Oates, bristling at movie-star comparisons. “Wrong!” he hisses, exultant in his fame, “I’m John Dillinger!” Purvis is just as grizzled a bastard, played by Ben Johnson with curmudgeonly hostility to the pressfriendly outlaw who’s nabbed his column inches.
This isn’t history recreated but retold, with romanticised – if hardly romantic – bravura. None of Mann’s DV naturalism here: Milius’ corn-fed visuals evoke Bonnie And Clyde’s pop-art nostalgia, while his hurtling tracking shots and dizzying monochrome montages come straight from ’30s Warner Brothers crime flicks. But the biggest influence is Sam Peckinpah. It’s no coincidence the film’s leads were fellow members of The Wild Bunch, and Milius splatters squibs with gusty abandon as he explodes traditional notions of law and order.
Every director’s Dillinger is his own, it seems. If Mann believes in meticulous professionalism, Milius sees only how Dillinger’s random, reckless violence is ‘fed’ back to him with interest. Released at the height of Vietnam, this is an allegory for a warped world where heroes and villains swap places. Fresh off co-writing Dirty Harry, Milius effectively made its mirror-image, with the vigilante lawman here a psychotic killjoy; Dillinger’s delinquency, in contrast, is almost honourable. No extras.