Public Enemies


Michael Mann’s ’30s crime saga feels here and now…

Michael Mann doesn’t talk like a director. He seldom explains shot choices, he never mourns deleted scenes and as for on-set gossip – forget it.

Instead, his DVD commentary is littered with terms like ‘protocol’, ‘curriculum’ and ‘organising strategy’.

Had he not settled on filmmaking, Mann might have been a teacher or an army general… In his ’30s-set gangster epic, periodpiece fustyness is in the firing line. The director wants us to live the era, “to make 1933 be as vivid, as complex, as detailed as a Thursday afternoon in 2009.” And with his HD cameras, he unarguably achieves this oddly anachronistic realism.

Effectively, we’re watching the origins story for Mann’s trademark duelling cops’n’criminals (Thief, Heat, Miami Vice), explaining just where those precise, professional archetypes came from. The clue’s in the title: Enemies, plural.

This isn’t really a biopic of bank robber John Dillinger, even if Mann can’t resist Johnny Depp’s rock-star charisma in the lead role. Rather, it’s the tale of how Tommygun hoodlums like Dillinger forced J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to tighten its nationwide grip.

Dillinger, as Mann admits, is a man out of time, last of the western outlaws. Sure, he’s a Mann’s man: meticulous, intelligent, even conscionable next to psycho cohort Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Yet, insatiable after a decade behind bars, Dillinger exists only in the now. “We’re having too good a time today, we ain’t thinking about tomorrow,” he purrs to girlfriend Billie Frechette (an affecting Marion Cotillard).

In contrast, the G-Men – led by Billy Crudup’s amusingly prissy Hoover – are anal killjoys. Still, Mann can’t help marvelling at methods that can locate a target just from the coat he wears, and Christian Bale makes his mark as Dillinger’s hunter Melvin Purvis.

Although virtually typecast, Bale’s scowling presence works for Purvis, a decent man who has reluctantly subsumed his old-school manners to Hoover’s brutality.

And the curriculum? On disc, a mere hour of featurettes fleshing out the historical context. For the actors, weeks of prep… “No detail is too small, you know?” an awestruck Bale observes.

Depp handles Dillinger’s actual getaway bag, reigniting the actor’s childhood hero-worship. Convicted armed robbers train the cast to perfect Dillinger’s timing: “One minute, 40 seconds, flat.”

Most astoundingly, Mann tidies up a derelict jail, disguising 75-year-old bullet holes in order to restage key sequences in their original locations. Not out of a “slavish adherence to actuality,” as Mann puts it – just part of his strategy to make an enthralling, enduring film.

Dillinger may not be thinking about tomorrow, but Michael Mann sure as hell is.

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