I've heard plenty of people that I've introduced to Collateral, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, and even Heat complain that Michael Mann's films are far too cerebreal, that they lack the sort of emotional oomph that the best films use to transport you to another time and place. Up until Miami Vice, I disagreed, but the Colin Farrell-Jamie Foxx-Gong Li vehicle got me worrying that Mann had completely forgotten how to engage his audience on a level more visceral than, “Jesus, digital cinematography has gotten good.” He'd need something impressive to bounce back from his feature film retooling of the show that put him on that map, and fortunately, Public Enemies precisely that sort of movie. And, for the first time, I doubt anyone can argue that it does not punch you in the stomach, squeeze your heart, and cause you to step back for a moment or two to appreciate the craftsmanship, the artistry of the film.
At its best, a Michael Mann film is beyond meticulously constructed. Nothing is left to chance, not even the backstory of the principal characters (he'd assembled a full dossier, complete with pictures, for Tom Cruise's Vincent in Collateral before his lead actor ever showed up for rehearsals). Public Enemies reeks of the 1930s, from the weave of the suits, to the cadence of the conversations, to the music (oh, the music – Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday are all over the place, but the real treats are Diana Krall's version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and two songs from Otis Taylor, “Ten Million Slaves” and “Nasty Letter,” all of which bring an energy and attitude to the film that are indispensible). Nothing is out of place, not ever.
Mann wastes no time in introducing us to John Dillinger at the height of his powers, staging an elaborate breakout of his gang from the jail that holds them (while none of the break-out, or break-in, scenes approach the centerpiece heist of Heat, the clockwork precision with which they unfold, at least at first, illustrates Mann's skill at helming the crime film just as well as they do Dillinger's skill at helming, well, crime). Dillinger has allies all over the place, from the men at his side during the bank heists, to the people that hide him between jobs, to his fellow criminals in the Syndicate that launder his stolen cash and send bigger and better jobs his way. His list of allies slowly dwindles as the film winds on, until he's practically alone and finally brought down when one of the few people still close to him is forced to betray him by the FBI.
As usual, the casting is superb, even visionary. Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis is beyond dogged in his pursuit of “Public Enemy Number One,” and slaps J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup in the actor's latest “really?” part) in the face with reality over and over again. Purvis is something of a contradiction here, a loner turned into the new face of the company, a man who never finds companionship or friendship as he races after the criminals terrorizing his country. Johnny Depp brings his rockstar charisma and total physical performance command to Dillinger, effortlessly modernizing yet another archetypical character in American film (first, the buccaneer in Pirates of the Carribean, and here the gangster). He grins and cracks wise with the press before he's thrown into prison, even putting his arm around the district attourney. His relationship with Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette (she is more than Depp's equal as a performer – they're always fighting for the upper hand onscreen) is the emotional core of the film, and what really places it in the upper echelon of Mann's catalog. Never before has he so effectively rendered love (screwed-up though this particular love may have been) onscreen – the closing sequence of the film in particular (they were so close to escaping to South America).
Much of the film feels like a synthesis of great gangster films that have come before – Bonnie & Clyde and The Untouchables spring most readily to mind – but Dante Spinotti's digital cinematography adds a series of new wrinkles to the equation. Public Enemies virtually crackles with the sort of tension and excitement that can only come from immediacy, which is what digital provides in spades. Light doesn't need to be so overtly manipulated with a digital film, light can simply be, allowing shadows to fall, and fall off, in greater magnitude than ever before. The bright lights and colors of Havana and Miami were not the right locations to deploy the most recent generation of digital cameras; for all they do well, colors rarely pop in a digital film. The drab Chicago of the 1930s, well, that's a different story. Arthur Penn's version of the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow redefined crime films for the second half of the 20th century; I think Public Enemies could well do that for the 21st century.