Public Enemies

Infamous bank robber John Dillinger was at the movies on the steamy July night in 1934 when FBI agents gunned him down outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre. In Michael Mann's jolting Public Enemies, sparked by a ball-of-fire Johnny Depp as Dillinger, America's most wanted man sits in a crowded theater watching Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable as a racketeer facing the electric chair with attitude — "Die like you live: all of a sudden." Hearing the line brings a smile to Dillinger's lips. Depp cannily plays the moment as an acknowledgment of how Hollywood romanticizes gangster life in contrast to the bruising reality. The gulf between the two — violence giving way to existential angst — is what gives Public Enemies its explosive kick.

The source material is Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, a rip-snorting chunk of reportage by Bryan Burrough that covers a lot of ground, including Bonnie and Clyde and Machine Gun Kelly. The script, by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, pays lip service to Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) but focuses tightly on Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the slick-dick FBI honcho with a jones to bring down Johnny D.

Mann, a past master of fictional crime stories (Heat, Manhunter, Collateral, Thief, Miami Vice), serves up his first true-life version since 1999's The Insider. While hardly a slave to facts, the Chicago-born Mann is obsessive about detail, shooting around the Midwest where Indiana boy Dillinger became a folk hero for robbing banks that exploited the working man during the Depression (any resemblance to then and now is purely non-coincidental). Mann shines at revealing the behavior of complex men doing corrupting jobs.

Back story? Not so much. Want to get inside Dillinger's head? Watch how Mann uses color, design, editing, score and Dante Spinotti's expressionistic camerawork to take you there. Depp, one of the most exciting and original actors this country has ever produced, does the rest. Depp's Dillinger wants the Robin Hood living inside his head to jump out and dazzle the press by cracking wise, breaking out of prison with a gun made of soap, negotiating a bank robbery with the athletic zest of a jackrabbit. Dillinger, who liked disguises and even had plastic surgery, prided himself on going out in public undetected. One wryly funny scene shows him strolling into a police station. In short, Dillinger was an actor. Depp could have slid by just showboating. Instead, he lets his haunted eyes reveal the confusion, cruelty and fatalism of a criminal who knows that part of his deal is dying young (he was 31).

Having spent most of his youth locked up in prison or hideouts, Dillinger knows what he wants when he hits Chicago. "Everything — right now," he says to hatcheck girl Billie Frechette (La Vie en Rose Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), the half French-Canadian, half American Indian beauty he moves on so hard it scares her: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars and you. What else you need to know?"

The patter is pure Hollywood, but Depp and the vibrantly touching Cotillard give the relationship a potent intimacy. When Billie is brutalized by cops, it's not Dillinger but Purvis who steps in to make the gallant gesture. Bale excels as this dapper G-man who uses his rank as chief lieutenant to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (a superbly creepy Billy Crudup) to rise in the ranks. He's just as ready for his close-up as Dillinger.

In the film's most thrilling action sequence — the 1934 FBI raid on Dillinger and his gang at Wisconsin's Little Bohemia Lodge — tommy-gun fire explodes like Fourth of July fireworks, and Purvis once again misses getting his man. That failure prods him to set the trap at the Biograph Theatre with the help of Anna Sage (Branka Katic), a Romanian prostitute. Though we know the outcome, the shooting is handled with pulse-quickening suspense, ending with Dillinger's dying whisper. What did he say? Mann comes up with a guess, which you can believe or not.

At the end of his book, Burrough pays a visit to Dillinger's Indiana grave and runs his hand over his tombstone. He writes that it's "nothing more and nothing less than polished granite — smooth, hard, cold. Real." Mann isn't satisfied with real. Never has been. His interpretation of the facts is not that of an objective reporter but a cinema poet. Onscreen, in Depp's towering performance, Dillinger still has blood in his veins, his dreams as vivid as the crimes that debased them. Public Enemies comes at you like Dillinger did: all of a sudden. It's movie dynamite.

From The Archives Issue 352: September 17, 1981