It looks like Michael Mann just can't get enough of playing cops and robbers, and with previous efforts from Heat to Miami Vice, he just about goes to show that he can weave some exciting scenes of pursuit, testosterone charged shoot em ups, and parallels between those on opposite sides of the law. What more, he has the services of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as his leading men, set in a time during the Great Depression where desperate men turn to desperate measures to survive.
Mann doesn’t waste time and puts you smack in the middle of the story, introducing you to the John Dillinger (Depp) character through a very daring prison break. Not his of course, but orchestrated by him to free his merry men, to form his band of brothers to rob banks with. Unfortunately though, the bank robberies that made it to the final cut wasn’t as sexy as those in the trailer, and doesn’t offer you too much techniques or tactics into breaking into those bank vaults full of cash, and neither does it add to the Dillinger character other than one-liners telling the public that this is nothing personal, highlighting his code of honour even amongst thieves.
As for Christian Bale’s lawman Agent Melvin Purvis, he gets introduced opposite Channing Tatum’s Pretty Boy Floyd, and gets put in a no-nonsense light somewhat like an Elliot Ness type, and gets personally handpicked by J Edgar Hoover (chillingly played by Billy Crudup) to lead the charge in capturing Dillinger. With pride in serving in the very roots of the FBI’s formation, and with great belief in the force’s standard operating procedure and cutting edge (at the time) scientific methods, Purvis comes across as a very straight laced contrast to Dillinger’s free-wheeling, devil may care attitude. Which of course sets up the initial differences between the two men more than just merely being on the different sides of the law.
However, Public Enemies seem to be, like Dillinger, always in a hurry. While it's paced incredibly well to plough through its rich material of a famous American bank robber during the Great Depression era, very little gets said about him as a person other than his romantic pursuits. His romance with Marion Collitard's Billie Frechette seemed to stick out like sore thumb and presented a tangent in the narrative, with too much desperate focus on it being that sliver of a personal piece on the notorious bank robber. Collitard had little challenge in a role which began quite interestingly with the romantic games people play, but fizzled out with time, being no more than a glorified flower vase in a role that could've been tackled by any fresh faced ingenue.
Mann seemed to be pulling his punches with a lot of subplots going underdeveloped. There were plenty to be explored, such as the code of loyalty between Dillinger and his band of merry men, or even the formation of the FBI could've been tackled in more depth especially since the film included the grilling of the unpopular J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), whom I felt had enough fuel for a tussle of hearts for Melvin Purvis to handle. I can already imagine with John Woo at the helm, sans the more balletic gun fights, these are areas that Woo would probably exploit, and areas which could have made this a more interesting, meaningful film than a shiny, glossy one. Not to say that Mann didn't try, which can be seen in those excellent scenes with Dillinger not being able to keep up with the times of white-collared crime versus brute-force robbery with diminishing returns, and being written off as old-fashioned. That too was in great contrast again to the FBI's newer, modern methods, which didn't prove to be as successful as the tried and tested process of crime investigations and problem solving.
So what's the verdict of the match up between Johnny Depp and Christian Bale? Like Mann's Heat which had the much touted about pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on opposite sides of the law, or like other much touted collaborations such as Ridley Scott's American Gangster starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, which is another biography of a more contemporary gangster, Public Enemies join that list in having its star billing spending less than a handful of screen time in the same frame. They rarely meet since they are adversaries on opposites, though here when they do, it's nothing more than some mediocre exchange of words. Nothing too exciting about it, which is somewhat of a pity since these two gentlemen are just about the hottest property in Tinseltown right now.
With cameos by Leelee Sobieski and Channing Tatum in blink and you miss roles, Public Enemies felt a little short-changed in depth, with wasted potential from being a contemporary classic such as how Brian De Palma's classy The Untouchables which was also set around the same period, with a famed lawmen and an infamous crook as its lead characters.