It's 1933, and four years into the Great Depression, John Dillinger is being taken to jail. Even if we didn't know the real-life history of this bank robber, rather popular among "the public" for not taking the ordinary Joe's money (and for sticking it to the banks), Dillinger's smile would clue us in: he isn't going to be staying long. Dillinger doesn't disappoint, that is to say director Michael Mann doesn't disappoint, leading off Public Enemies with a jailbreak sequence the New York Times' Manohla Dargis has rightly called "sensationally choreographed." Nor is this the only memorable action sequence: the film is chock full of them (to the point where the accumulation almost becomes a problem -- the detail of the later sequences doesn't register; by that point the audience has become de-sensitized, and can only register the noise), not least among them Baby Face Nelson's escape from a Chicago apartment building from under the noses of several FBI agents; and Dillinger's last (and most violent) bank heist. That Mann is good at staging action sequences shouldn't come as a surprise; but what is unexpected is his taste for frenetic gunplay -- the pleasures of Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice (or the lack thereof, where the last was concerned), seem serene by comparison.
Dillinger's foil is FBI agent Melvin Purvis, one of J. Edgar Hoover's new breed of agents waging war on crime. The FBI's "new" and "scientific" methods for fighting crime also serve to highlight the passage from the world of stars to those of actors. Johnny Depp is clearly a denizen of the former, Christian Bale, of the latter. This isn't a measure of how good either performer is, but of the sensibility Mann wants the two to bring to their roles: Depp, the Movie Star, is also the criminal John Dillinger (with the same initials as Depp), back when the right outlaw could loom larger-than-life and fire the public's imagination (Jesse James, and in particular, the James played by a sorrowful Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as the frontier era was drawing to a close, also comes to mind), a personality that is revealed in the grand gesture (and belief in gesture is itself belief in personality -- as opposed to mere psychology -- and is perhaps always susceptible to romanticism), and nowhere is this love of gesture more apparent than towards the end of the film, when Dillinger infiltrates (actually, saunters into) the offices of the FBI that is out to get him: the gesture is futile, and recklessly endangers Dillinger, yet one never wonders why he does it -- Depp's Dillinger simply would; Bale is the FBI agent, the "new" sort of law-enforcement official, who is stolid and diligent, too dedicated to his duty to be anything other than valiant in serving it (courage, that is, follows logically from his duty, and is not an ideal that Purvis seems to believe in), who believes in method above all else -- Melvin Purvis is played by an actor, and one who, like most of his Hollywood contemporaries, is denied access to the star's transcendence (and perhaps wouldn't know what to do with it if he were vouchsafed it). Public Enemies is, in short, a triumph of casting, because both Depp and Bale are very good at what Mann wants them to do; and if in the final analysis the film belongs to Depp, it is because Mann is ever on the side of Stars. No-one should be fooled by the grainy visuals, the very contemporary digital look of this film: it is a monument to a bygone era, and perhaps especially a bygone cinematic era (Depp's Dillinger meets his end right after he's done watching a Clark Gable film), yet rendered so straight that it doesn't have the vibe of homage, and for Mann seems to be simply the way men, women, love, valor, and films ought to be. The realization of this vision isn't unproblematic -- one might even call the vision puerile -- but there can be no doubt that in Public Enemies, Mann has achieved what he set out to do.
No meaningful discussion of Mann's work can omit mention of his visual style: his are the premier contemporary representations of nocturnal urban American spaces (Collateral is the best example), taking in gloss and shiny things with the eye (though not the covetous energy) of a magpie. The poet of things and surfaces is alive and well in Public Enemies, although the quaintness that hardly any period piece can escape means that Mann's eye is obscured from the audience, which is almost forced to believe that the camera lingers on an object not because it is made to, but because the object is an artifact, and doesn't exist anymore in the audience's time and place. The visuals themselves are markedly grainy, shorn of the luster that has been so characteristic of Mann's last few films, almost as if the director were determined to cook a snook at the annoying preciousness of Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition (as inappropriate a cinematic adaptation of a sparsely rendered graphic novel as one can imagine); yet if the film has been shot in very contemporary digital mode, the addiction to close-ups, the dialogue, the whole tone of the film, is nothing if not old school. In many of Mann's films, his earnest sensibility combines visual appeal with the claustrophobia borne of under-developed vision (one might even say superficial vision: Mann's is an eye that is satisfied with surfaces) -- that Public Enemies is spared that fate is largely due to Depp, and also to French actress Marion Cotillard, who takes the rather predictable role of Dillinger's love interest (Billie Frechette) and makes it her own -- along with her acting ability and screen presence, it certainly helps that Cotillard, like so many French actresses (and not enough Hollywood ones) looks and sounds distinctive; beautiful, but not in a generic way. Which isn't to say that the film is rescued by its cast, simply that Mann realizes that a film set around the concerns animating so many films in Hollywood's golden era must be "about" cinema in some sense; that is, that part of the effect of the 1930s period piece consists of recreating for a 2009 audience what it must have been like to watch a movie, and watch movie-stars (often playing gangsters), back in the day. We now know that experience was imperiled in the long run, and Mann represents that loss by means of the fate of John Dillinger (but not only Dillinger: I've referenced the sequence where Dillinger stares at Clark Gable, Depp's smile the smile of recognition, but even Baby-Face Nelson seems to like nothing better than doing James Cagney impersonations) in a changing world. Not only are his methods -- essentially, walking up to a bank and robbing it quickly, decamping with the loot and a couple of hostages used for cover -- doomed to ultimate failure in an emerging world where law-enforcement knows few jurisdictional bounds, and is metamorphosing into a science; his bank robberies themselves seem like small change when organized crime has itself gone "coast to coast" in the words of Chicago mobster Frank Nitti (played by Billy Camp). Quite fittingly, Dillinger is felled outside a theater showing a movie called "Manhattan Melodrama" -- not a title one could any longer even imagine gracing a movie theater. The expression on Depp's face when he is fatally shot is one of surprise -- his Dillinger never really thought the cops could catch up with him, insisting to Billie that he and his gang were too smart, too fast, and too good for them -- but we can see that it's been a long time coming.