Public Enemies is not a Johnny Depp movie, it’s a a Michael Mann movie. Most will be disappointed that this is the result of this intersection between iconic actor and iconic role, and in that sense in particular it’s a lot like The Assassination of Jesse James. It’s methodical, it doesn’t mug for the audience, and it is flawed. But it’s also one of the best movies of the year.
John Dillinger’s story has been a formative one in the mythologizing of crime, from his Robin Hood-like taxing on the rich to his demise at the hands of a femme fatale in a red dress, and this is why it’s all the more surprising (and disappointing to our preconceptions) that its movie mostly avoids cliché. For one, that femme fatale wasn’t actually sporting red but orange and white, Mann points out, while the film’s structure is more a serial alternation between robberies and prison breaks than a classic biopic arc. Dillinger doesn’t have a tragic flaw that slowly presents itself and then poetically brings him down; he’s just a tough dude that robs banks and won’t adjust to any system.
As for the performances, Depp gets precious few moments to swagger and the movie could use more emotionality (but would that be disingenuous?) from him and his Dillinger. Cotillard is as tough as the cobalt of her eyes yet still somehow manages to convey more feeling. Bale is, well, Bale.
But the real star is the filming, not the filmed. Some have questioned why Mann would shoot a period piece through such an inextricably modern lens, specifically the digital one he’s been using since Ali and Collateral. There was a concern that this disconnect would be distracting, and I worried that his signature blues and grays wouldn’t match the dusty tans and browns that define our collective memory of the era. But the truth is that it’s sepia tones that allow us to keep the past at a distance. The contemporary look of Enemies pulls the contemporary audience in, and in made-for-Blu-Ray high definition.
If you’ve seen the trailer you’ve probably gathered that Enemies also participates in the cops-and-robbers-and-“when-you’re-facing-a-loaded-gun-what’s-the-difference” genre that The Departed (and Internal Affairs, of which The Departed was a remake) most recently took to its extreme, once again with two stars squaring off from opposites sides of the law. Here the parallels aren’t as strong or as strongly accentuated (remember all the crosscutting in The Departed? Even Rocky had a montage), but nor should this theme again steal the show. Still, under their relentless toughness it’s satisfying to detect each star’s struggle to keep both his brutes under control and his little compassion under wraps.
When the inevitable execution comes with its deft employ of CGI blood, you might not be reminded as much of Jesse James as of Zodiac. Like Zodiac, Public Enemies is a modern auteur’s innovative look at the historical root of a genre and is a take that at first seems disappointing in how it frustrates our movie-and-ad-honed expectations. And, like Zodiac in 2007, it seems destined to be one of the most underrated movies of the year.