Ever since Francis Ford Coppola abdicated the rights in 1974 after The Godfather II, no one has mastered the crime epic better than Michael Mann. Mann's Heat (1995) is, in my opinion, flawless. It's inevitable that his latest film, Public Enemies, will be compared to that masterpiece and it is not an unfair comparison. Indeed, Mann seems to invite the association, making it impossible to ignore. Public Enemies is Heat with fedoras, a gangster epic that is easily the best and most rewarding thing the director has done in more than a decade, an intensely visceral tour-de-force. In a summer season tailor made for teenagers, Mann has come out with something perfect for adults.
Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber who gained folk hero status among the populace in the 1930s for robbing the banks believed responsible for the Great Depression, and Christian Bale as dashing FBI agent Melvin Purvis, the man appointed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to bring him to justice.
A sort of Robin Hood, Dillinger was an almost mythological figure, a charming bandit who treated the public with the utmost respect; they, in turn, sheltered him from a police force always a step or two behind. Dillinger's exploits only fueled his iconic status—he cleared out banks in record time and mounted audacious escapes from jail. Dillinger's mockery of the law—and the lawmen assigned to stop him—was the perfect impetus for the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, which labeled him the country's first Public Enemy Number One, and charged Purvis with taking him down by any means necessary. Frustrated by the criminal mastermind at every turn, Purvis traded in his Yale-trained special agents for a posse of Texas lawmen, initiating a bloody, urban showdown.
Public Enemies is about the dawning of a new age. Agent Purvis constantly tells his men that the only way they will catch their prey is if they leave the antiquated tools of police work behind and embrace modern technology. Hoover too makes this contention when he tells Purvis that the ends justify the means when it comes to apprehending Dillinger. We live in a new, modern age, he tells Purvis, and we must adapt our methods to fit it and abandon polite civility. One wonders if Mann is intentionally trying to evoke the language of former Vice President Cheney, when he said America must embrace cruelty in order to survive in a cruel world. In the end, Dillinger is not brought down by modern police work so much as by a progressive criminal enterprise that leaves him and his anachronistic methods in the dust.
Depp, so good at being the chameleon, is also great at playing it straight. While Dillinger is charismatic when the news cameras are rolling, he is a very different man in private. Purvis, whom we never really get to know as anything other than a man singularly possessed of an all-consuming mission, is even more elusive. Bale sports an accent that is difficult to accept at first but is a welcome change after growling his way through The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation. Like DeNiro and Pacino in Heat, the two men are embodiments of the two-faced Roman god Janus. Both are cut from the same cloth and temperament, opposite sides of the same coin.