Worthwhile, generally well-crafted but occasionally confusing film about John Dillinger that plays more like a crime drama than a thriller and convincingly captures the time period in which it is set. Despite a 140-minute running time that feels long but not overlong, the movie does not succeed in getting under the skin of its characters and is therefore never really emotionally involving.
The straightforwardly staged traffic-light scene is very effective in terms of generating suspense. Another great, more humorous than suspenseful moment takes place in a movie theater and features a John Dillinger newsreel. Two other highlights of Public Enemies are the court scene with the cunning defense lawyer Louis Piquett (Peter Gerety) and Dillinger’s audacious visit to the offices of the Dillinger Squad.
Digitally shot, the film has a distinctive, very sharp but somewhat grainy look that goes hand in hand with director Michael Mann’s overall style for the picture. The extensive use of hand-held cameras is less distracting than I thought it would be, but there are times when the camera technique draws attention to itself in a way it shouldn’t.
Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are expectedly solid as Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, respectively. Marion Cotillard, who portrayed Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, gives an excellent performance here as Billie Frechette, and her tear-filled face in the last scene of the movie leaves a lasting impression. Billy Crudup also deserves a mention for his forceful portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover.
Based on the book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 by Bryan Burrough.