I've heard plenty of people that I've introduced to Collateral and Heat complain that Michael Mann's films are too cerebral, that they lack the emotional oomph that the best films use to transport you to another time and place. Public Enemies is not that sort of movie. And, for the first time, I doubt anyone can argue that it does not punch you in the stomach, squeeze your heart, and cause you to step back for a moment or two to appreciate the craftsmanship, the artistry of the film. Mann wastes no time in introducing us to John Dillinger at the height of his powers, staging an elaborate breakout of his gang from the jail that holds them (while none of the heist/escape scenes approach the centerpiece heist of Heat, the clockwork precision with which they unfold, at least at first, mirrors Mann's skill at helming the crime film with Dillinger's skill at helming, well, crime). Dillinger has allies all over the place: the men at his side during the bank heists, the people that hide him, to his fellow criminals that launder his stolen cash and send bigger and better jobs his way. His list of allies dwindles until he's practically alone and finally brought down when one of the few people still close to him is forced to betray him by the FBI.
As usual, the casting is superb. Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis is beyond dogged in his pursuit of “Public Enemy Number One,” and something of a contradiction, a loner turned into the new face of the Company, a man who never finds companionship or friendship as he races after criminals. Johnny Depp brings his rockstar charisma and total physical performance command to Dillinger, effortlessly modernizing yet another archetypal character in American film (first, the buccaneer in Pirates of the Caribbean, and here the gangster). He grins and cracks wise with the press before he's thrown into prison, even putting his arm around the district attorney. His relationship with Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette (she is more than Depp's equal as a performer – they're always fighting for the upper hand onscreen) is the emotional core of the film, and what really places it in the upper echelon of Mann's catalog. Never before has he so effectively rendered love onscreen – the closing sequence of the film in particular.
Much of the film feels like a synthesis of great gangster films that have come before – Bonnie & Clyde and The Untouchables – but Dante Spinotti's digital cinematography adds a series of new wrinkles to the equation. Public Enemies virtually crackles with the sort of tension and excitement that can only come from immediacy, which is what digital provides in spades. The drab Chicago of the 1930s comes to life in darkness. Arthur Penn's version of the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow redefined crime films for the second half of the 20th century; I think Public Enemies could well do that for the 21st century.