Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by:Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, David Wenham, Giovanni Ribisi
Released: July 30, 2009
Grade: A-

In 1924, 21-year-old John Dillinger was sentenced to jail for mugging a grocer.  It was his first offence but the judge threw the book at him.  Dillinger would serve eight and half years behind bars.  On his release in 1933, Dillinger was anything but reformed.  He put together a “tough as guts” crew and instigated a barrage of robberies across the United States.  Infamous he would become.


This final year in the life of John Dillinger is the subject of Michael Mann’s new film.  It may be set in the midst of the Great Depression but Mann didn’t want it to feel like a period piece.  With the help of cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential), Mann has shot the movie using the latest in digital cameras.  It gives the film a crisp, fresh look.


I’ve always held Michael Mann in high regard.  He knows how to bring a story to life and previous credits include Heat, The Insider and Collateral.  Much research went into this project.  He wanted to retell the Dillinger story as accurately as possible.  This included a detailed review of files in the FBI archives.  He also created 114 different sets and shot several scenes in the exact same location where actual events took place.


John Dillinger (played in the film by Johnny Depp) may have been the most wanted man in the United States but many people saw him as a hero.  His dictum was never to rob from ordinary people – he just wanted to punish the banks and the government for their roles in the lead up to the Great Depression.  You’ll learn pretty quickly that Dillinger was a guy who lived for today and not for tomorrow.  He knew his escapades would not last and he wanted to make the most of his notoriety.


What I found more interesting that Dillinger’s escapades was the chase by the authorities to capture him.  The newly formed FBI was using their best men to hunt down Dillinger and his crew.  Leading the chase was a young agent out to impress by the name of Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale).  Equal waiting is given in the film to the stories of both Dillinger and Purvis.


I didn’t realise it before seeing Public Enemies but the 1930s were a curious era in law enforcement.  Outlaws such as Dillinger could now use cars to escape.  They also had huge machine guns which could fire a seemingly endless stream of bullets… not too accurately I might add.  To try to peg back the upper hand, the authorities used the latest forensic techniques, such as fingerprinting.


There are some great shoot-outs in this film to appease the action fans.  It’s reminiscent of Michael Mann’s work in Heat, except that the guns are about 60 years older.  Johnny Depp is solid in the leading role but it was the supporting players who grabbed my attention.  Christian Bale is terrific as Mevlin Purvis as is French actress Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) who plays Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette.


Clocking in at just under two and a half hours, Public Enemies makes for good viewing and is a refreshing change from the special effects laden sequels which are currently clogging up our multiplexes.