Public Enemies, the latest from director Michael Mann, fits in remarkably well with Mann's other movies like Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice — not just for the cops-versus-crooks plot (long before it opened, some film fans were dismissing Public Enemies as "Heat in Tweed") or its intimate, immediate shot-on-digital-video look and visual style, but more importantly in its tone and theme and tenor. With its guns-and-guts storyline, Public Enemies has some of the swagger and rhythm of a summer blockbuster action-crime film, but it's as smart and thoughtful as it is flashy and full of action. Public Enemies, like Mann's other crime films, only looks like a shoot-'em-up. It's an exciting and visceral film, to be sure, but the bright and frequent muzzle flashes from the .45's and Tommy guns can't eliminate the darker shadows and shades of grey in the script and the film, part of what the critic F.X. Feeney has called Mann's ongoing mission of presenting a "profound, interactive, philosophical history of the United States."
Putting that on the marquee, of course, wouldn't do a lot to sell tickets, so Public Enemies is being sold as a guns-a-blazin' action flick, with the double-barreled punch of Johnny Depp as bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale as top cop Melvin Purvis. That's what is being sold, but there's much more up on the screen, and the question is if audiences will accept getting more than they expected when they don't get what they were told to expect. Yes, you do get Depp in a suit taking loot, but you also get a look at what happens when Purvis is tasked by the head of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to bring Dillinger in, prove that a federal police force could stop crime and keep Hoover from looking bad. Hoover declares a "war on crime," and the appearance of victory becomes just as (if not more) important as victory. As the desire to bring in Dillinger grows more and more fevered, the tactics of the men working alongside Purvis grow more and more desperate, it's hard not to hear echoes of the here-and-now.
The muzzle flashes aren't the brightest thing in Public Enemies, though — that would be Depp's star power. We get a great early scene with Depp's Dillinger that sets the tone for the film. As he's leaving a hideout, a haggard woman out of a Dorothea Lange picture lunges for Dillinger as he sets out from hiding and pleads "Take me with you, mister." Dillinger may be going to hell or to jail, but he's going somewhere — and in a nation trapped in a Depression, that kind of spirit made Dillinger a folk hero. And, just like Hoover and Purvis, Dillinger's aware of the importance of public relations. Invited to join in a job, Dillinger passes, preferring the more respectable option of bank robbery: "I don't like kidnapping … the public don't like kidnapping. …" Instead, Dillinger's the kind of crook who'll rob a bank in "a minute and forty seconds … flat," bringing along hostages to stand on the running boards of the car to make the getaway — and offering a young lady his coat so she doesn't get chilly while she's acting as a human shield.
But while we don't see any of Purvis' private life — unlike Al Pacino's dogged cop in Heat, there's no sign of Purvis' family or even friends — we do get a plot about Dillinger's romance with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who's swept off her feet even faster than Dillinger can take down a bank. She protests she doesn't know Dillinger well enough for them to be involved. He comes back with murderous charm: "I like movies, baseball, fast cars, good clothes, whisky, and you — what more do you need to know?" Cotillard brings a steely grace to what could have been a thankless role, especially when, echoing Ashley Judd's character in Heat, she's given the choice to betray her lover or pay the price. Depp makes it easy to like Dillinger at first glance (in many ways, Dillinger was the Johnny Depp of '30s crooks, a devil-may-care rebel with an inexhaustible supply of cool) but Depp also makes it easy to understand Dillinger, adding depth and richness to the performance as Dillinger's being squeezed between Purvis and Hoover's increasingly brutal efforts and the Chicago mob's willingness to let him be caught so their profitable apple cart doesn't get upset, or as Dillinger moves towards death and knows it's coming.
And that, not the guns and the guys, is what makes Public Enemies a Michael Mann film — how it's willing to look at what happens when crime fighting becomes a kind of crime unto itself, or how the criminal underworld has more in common with so-called civilized society than any of us would like to think. Public Enemies is, like The Godfather, a film about America — complicated and complex, capable of wrong and right, full of a spirit that can't be denied and, on occasion, can't be directed. No, Public Enemies isn't quite a summer blockbuster — but it's got more brains and guts than almost anything else playing out there, and stands as a fascinating movie to think about over the 4th of July.