When replying after being asked about his profession John Dillinger simply states “I rob banks”. And that’s actually all there is to it in this adaptation of John Dillinger’s life which received an extra layer as the movie also concentrates on how the FBI was started. Echo’s of Michael Mann’s 1995 crime-movie Heat are here, a movie that also dealt with both a couple of bank robbers as well as the men who are trying to capture them.
Set in the depression-era of the 1930s Public Enemies tries shows us how a gangster, a ruthless bank robber, escapes from jail twice and has complete police-forces on his tail yet still manages to simply go out in public. In the mean time we see how the FBI is created as at the time the law was unsubstantial about criminals being active in multiple states.
The movie stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger who actually gets to play a rather straight role. Something he has done before but the last time was already 5 years ago. The last 5 years consisted of singing murderous barbers, drunk pirates and loony Chocolate Factory owners. The yang to his yin is Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale with his usual ferociousness. He always looks like he’s brooding from inside, a quality that gives his characters an extra edge. The opening-scene in which Bale’s character Purvis hunts down a criminal and has no problems of shooting him the back sets him up nicely. It’s no surprise that later on he will practically go to torture methods just to extract a location. He has his limits though. When one of his colleagues beats up a woman during questioning her about Dillinger’s whereabouts he bursts in, reprimands the colleague and takes her to be looked after.
The movie is beautifully shot and all the scenes and settings feel real. A great deal of accuracy has been put into recreating sets from that period. It is a feast for the eye although I would expect nothing less from Michael mann who has been the first in line to be using the latest technology on shooting movies. I was less impressed about the story itself. Despite a few memorable scenes the story of Dillinger himself was not so very interesting to me. Like he simply states: he is just a bank robber and nothing more. He could go out or so it seemed but I was wondering at the same time if the public actually knew his face and was familiar with his crimes. He might not take the personal belongings from the people in the bank during a robbery, he was taking their money from the vault. There is one scene which I though they sure were going to play for a laugh as a police-bulletin in the cinema asked the audience to look to the right and then to the left to see if John Dillinger was there as he could be hiding amongst you. The movie shows a cat and mouse game: Dillinger robs banks, Purvis tries to capture them. What is interesting is how they show how they use new techniques like phone-tapping to close in on Dillinger. Something the public, and thus Dillinger, was probably not aware of at the time.
I feel sorry for the memorable scenes like Dillinger’s visit to the department that was created exclusively to capture him that they were not in a more consistent and more interesting movie. With the likes of Depp, Bale and Mann on board a better movie should have been the result.