At a young age, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is sent off to prison for a petty crime. In 1933, four years into the Great Depression, he successfully escapes in the first of many daring escapes throughout his life. Once escaping prison, he goes on a bank robbing spree throughout the Midwest. During this time, he becomes public enemy #1 to the FBI. Dillinger's biggest enemy? FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Unfortunately for Purvis, Dillinger is not so easy to find.
With the right direction, with the right script, "Public Enemies" could have been "Bonnie and Clyde" for the 2000s. But the film is misguided. Maybe it's because the director is Michael Mann. Mann is also known for directing "Collateral." While "Collateral" was entertaining at times, it lacked depth or any real purpose. "Public Enemies" suffers from this same problem.
However, Mann does have some talents. He knows style. But he doesn't know substance. The sets and costumes echo the era perfectly. But all of that seems to be viewed from a distance. There's not much exploring the sets and seeing how they effect the people's lives. That's why, for example, "Mad Men" works so well and why "Public Enemies" doesn't.
Where the film is strong in sets and costumes, it lacks in cinematography and score. The film often looks like it could have been shot on a shoestring budget, and the camera is too often right in the characters' faces. This usually becomes distracting and often makes the film hard to watch. Meanwhile, the score does not properly reflect the culture of the era and could have better used music directly from the 1930s. The film tries to use a few modern songs, but they eventually clash with the scenes they are put into.
Now, "Public Enemies" does have a few strong points. Mann is not bad at shooting action sequences, and the shootout in the woods is something of a stunning sequence. Also, Dillinger's death at the film's end (not a spoiler: this is a true story) borders on something of a tragedy, despite Dillinger being a major criminal.
The audience may feel a bit saddened by Dillinger's death because of Depp's ability to capture the character so well. Even with a weak script, he does his best to bring out all the quirks of the character. His most interesting trait: fearlessness. In one scene, he walks directly into a police department and doesn't seem afraid at all. It's a scene that has a very droll sense of humor. After viewing that scene, you may wonder why the rest of the movie couldn't have been done in the same way.
Bale, another fine young actor, could have given a much better performance had he been given something better to act upon. Same goes for Depp. Although his performance was good, it had potential to be one of his best had the script been better.
Perhaps "Public Enemies" could have been a masterpiece if it had a different director. My top choice would've been Martin Scorsese. He emphasized the era in "Goodfellas" but didn't lose track of his gangster characters. He knows how to show consequence to crime, while Mann just consistently glorified Dillinger's crime spree without really showing much of it. Another good choice might have been Ridley Scott, whose "American Gangster" was one of the best films the genre has produced in years.
The biggest problem with "Public Enemies," despite its 143 minute running time, is that everything happens too quickly. Mann is so used to making fast-paced films that he barely stops to take a breath and admire the scenery. He seems to want to rush to the finale so quickly that he forgets that any good finale must have sufficient development before it can occur. He takes us to Chicago, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona without pausing to explain why we are going to these places, and maybe introduce us to the rest of Dillinger's crew. Perhaps a voiceover from Depp might have worked well here. Depp knows how to give a good narration (see: "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas").
The era that "Public Enemies" takes place in is one that somewhat echos what we are going through now: a time of economic hardship, desperation, and confusion. The great "Bonnie and Clyde" connects the couple's escape from home and eventual crime spree to the rebellious feelings of the late 1960s. Couldn't Mann have gone deeper and connected the Depression to our own lives?
The substance of "Public Enemies" does not lie in the style; the film is all style and no substance. Its few redeeming qualities can't help make it a better movie.
While I am happy to see that Hollywood is trying to make more adult cinema and I hope they continue to do so, I just hope that next time they do it right.