I'll watch pretty much anything by Michael Mann, but I tend to enjoy the pairing of actors that he chooses as his leads for his crime sagas. The two leads may not always meet up in the film, but Mann is sure to treat them both with the same level of depth (which is either a lot or a little, but always in reason). We had Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in The Insider, Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Collateral, Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice, and now we have Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in Public Enemies. Public Enemies is (like Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice) not as heavy on the action as its summer brethren but like a typical Mann film, there are little sparks of violence that eventually explodes into a large scale battle like the street shootout of Heat, the club slaughter in Collateral, and the underrated dock assault in Miami Vice. I suppose it is the sign of a true auteur of visually stunning films that one can make similar crime sagas that feel completely different.
In Public Enemies, the shootout takes place in the woods at night and it is the second time where Johnny Depp's bank robbing John Dillinger meets Christian Bale's FBI Agent Melvin Purvis. Depp plays Dillinger like a hardened criminal, he enjoys what he does and it is motivated out of his hate for the United States government. While Bale plays Purvis like a man of steel, but he is so damn obsessed with finding Dillinger that his stone demeanor does not take away from the emotion that one knows is boiling inside of him as seen when a fellow agent of his dies. In fact, the other main characters also battle with obsession. John and Billie (Marion Cotilliard in an amazing english portrayal for a French-speaking actress, she is probably the deepest character depicted) are obsessed with each other while J. Edgar Hoover (an energetic Billy Crudup) is obsessed with proving his worth as the director of the FBI and winning the first war against organized crime. Dillinger's crew on the other hand, are all obsessed with thrills and money and like most Mann films, I wish we could spend more time with the supporting characters, but that is a sacrifice that has to be made when you have a film dealing with multiple leads.
Mann shot this with specialized high-definition cameras and his use of wide angles has both its pros and cons. Sometimes we never feel too close to the character when we want to like during the famous death scene outside of a theater playing Manhattan Melodrama (a film that Mann showcases in a whole new light); I wanted to know what was going in Dillinger's head but the camera has me concentrating on his surroundings and not his facial expressions (unless there is an extreme close up, which thankfully does occur). At other times because of the cameras, we get to marvel at the art direction. And Mann and his cinematographer don't indulge in the sets and costumes, everything is just there to be there making sure that no shots are wasted.
In terms of the story, Mann pushes away the myth of Dillinger and even though his celebrity is touched on, this is more about the man. Yet because of how procedural certain moments of the story feel (mostly the planning or stopping of crimes, the true character moments are between John and Billie), one begins to wish that Mann's latest crime saga would bring us further in. Character moments are sporadic, we see characters meditating on the latest events but we rarely see them take action until a few moments later. And just for discussion's sake, the best scene of the film aside from the log cabin shootout, is when Dillinger walks into the Chicago precinct just to prove to himself that he won't be arrested, pay close attention to how Depp plays his character when he talks to the cops.
Mann's films often open to okay reviews but given a few months, they are often remembered fondly. It is because we expect a cliched experience, but once we can sit back and evaluate the newfound drama that Mann can bring us (albeit through an unorthdox style when compared to those in-your-face stereotypical Oscar nominees) we appreciate just how welcoming a story without the legends of myth can be.