The Crop:  Public Enemies

The Studio:  Universal Pictures

The Director:  Michael Mann

The Writers:  Ronan Bennett w/ revisions by Ann Biderman and Mann

The Cast:  Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Jason Clarke, Stephen Dorff and John Ortiz

The Premise:  Gentleman bank robber John Dillinger and square-jawed federal agent Melvin Purvis do the Neil McCauley/Vincent Hannah dance in an impeccably structured narrative that starts with Dillinger’s 1933 escape from the Indiana State Prison and concludes with his assassination outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre in 1934.  

The Context:  Does Michael Mann really need a hit?  That depends on the studios’ willingness to continue granting the sixty-five-year-old director substantial budgets and final cut even though his films rarely gross north of $70 million domestically (Collateral, starring a pre-couch Tom Cruise, is his only film to crack $100 million).  For a while, Mann dodged this kind of ruthless, bottom-line thinking by attaching bankable stars to his less-than-bankable projects (strange to think that Ali wasn’t bankable, but boxing hasn’t been a serious draw in this country since Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear*), but then Miami Vice happened.  Suddenly, the studios weren’t so hot on the notoriously exacting filmmaker.

We know this because I’m not writing about what will probably (and sadly) be known in perpetuity as Mann/Logan Project.  A lavishly imagined film noir set against the backdrop of 1930s Hollywood, the production couldn’t entice a single studio in town despite the marketable leading man presence of Leonardo DiCaprio to offset its proposed $120 million (New Line tried to interest Mann in a massively scaled-back $90 million rendition, but he wisely declined).  Had Mann come calling in the wake of The Insider, the answer almost certainly would’ve been “Is $120 million all you need?”  But after the extreme commercial disappointment of the very pricey Miami Vice in 2006, there was a sense that the filmmaker couldn’t be trusted, that his instincts were off.  The Insider had bought Mann all kinds of prestige clout, but, evidently, this goodwill was all used up.

So Mann began to cast about for something a little more affordable, or, barring that, vastly more commercial than a backlot noir starring one of today’s hottest stars.  One potential project was The Winter of Frankie Machine, an adaptation of Don Winslow’s aging hit man yarn being developed by Robert De Niro.  Getting back together with one-half of Heat‘s thespian dream team sounded promising enough, but was the material durable enough to withstand Mann’s aggressive tinkering?  Before we could see a script, Mann was on to the next big thing, a second go-round with Will Smith called Empire.  Described by Smith as a Richard III-influenced character study of a media mogul, the screenplay was still in its nascent stages back in December of ’07; it would be some time before it was up to Mann’s precise standards.

Well, since the studios aren’t buying 1930s noirs, how about Public Enemies, a… 1930s gangster epic centered on the adversarial relationship between expert criminal John Dillinger and stolid G-man Melvin Purvis?  It’s like the Mann/Logan project, but stripped of glitz and DiCaprio!  If the studios aren’t going for DiCaprio as a gumshoe, you’ll get shut down all over town unless you’ve got, say, Johnny Depp attached as Dillinger.  

So Mann went and got, say, Johnny Depp attached as Dillinger.  But how’s the Dillinger saga more commercial than the Logan noir?

The Script:  I imagine the pitch going something like this:  “What if I could give you a younger, sexier Heat in 134 minutes with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale?”, at which point Universal quickly forgot the myriad headaches of Miami Vice and coughed up the nine-figure budget.  

At least the studio knows all of the shooting will take place in the continental United States.  Even more important, they’ve got to be excited to have Mann shooting a relatively compact gangster flick that’s heavier on heists and getaways than brooding meditations on cop/criminal duality (though I should not that I’m working from Mann’s 11/4/07 revisions; he’s had over three months to go nuts on the tête-à-têtes).  For Mann-iacs, there are definite pluses and minuses here:  while the details of the bank jobs and shootouts are lovingly explicated down to the last ejected shotgun shell, the character depth is, at present, nowhere near the level of Heat and heavily imbalanced.  But the latter deficiency may be intentional; despite his mental acuity (J. Edgar Hoover values intellect over common street smarts), Purvis is a neophyte compared to Vincent Hannah.  He’s not good enough to catch Dillinger on his own; he’ll need ringers – the kinds of hired guns Hoover detests – to bring Dillinger in.

If this lopsided dynamic isn’t being addressed in current rewrites (given Mann’s burnishing tendencies, there’s little doubt he’s doing something to the script prior to principal), here’s what you’ll get:  Depp’s most unaffected star turn since Blow and Bale doing what Bale does best, which looks something like this…

I’m not complaining or taking (much of) a shot at Bale.  Actors have to take cuts in their wheelhouse from time to time to keep their mechanics sharp.  Also, a minimalist magician like Mann could find heretofore unexploited nuances in Bale’s impassiveness; there may be a wealth of character lurking in Purvis that can’t be expressed on the page.  

But let’s focus on what Public Enemies gets right:  Dillinger and the period through which he briefly, but flamboyantly romped.  The script opens with the gangster breaking out of the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.  The operation – which also entails springing Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley, Homer Van Meter and Dillinger’s mentor, Walter Dietrich – goes smoothly until the vicious Ed Shouse loses control and bashes the brains out of a random guard.  Figuring this is his fate as well, on of the other guards lurches for Van Meter’s .45; the result is a bloody, protracted firefight that leaves Dietrich dead (Dillinger thrashes, but stops just short of killing Shouse once the gang is clear of the prison).

Before moving on to Purvis’s intro, there’s an interlude at a nearby farmhouse where Dillinger and the boys change out of their prison duds and grab a quick bite courtesy of a poverty stricken family.  This allows Mann to establish Dillinger’s a) generosity (he peels off a $20 bill, which is double what their breakfast might’ve cost), and b) attractiveness to the opposite sex (the farmer’s young daughter quietly pleads with Dillinger to take her with him).

Whether genuine or pure public relations put-on, Dillinger’s congeniality stands in sharp contrast to Purvis’s joyless demeanor (which reportedly inspired Dick Tracy’s no-nonsense profile).  And we get our first glimpse of it as the agent is chasing down a fleeing Pretty Boy Floyd through the woods of East Liverpool, Ohio.  Purvis orders Floyd to halt, and ducks a hail of Thompson scatter for his trouble.  Ultimately, Purvis has no choice but to fire on Floyd, and he puts him down for good; however, before Floyd expires, he gets the opportunity to gurgle out a “rot in hell” to his relentless pursuer.  It’s difficult to tell how Purvis feels about his handiwork; J. Edgar Hoover, on the other hand, is thrilled, and tasks his rising star to make Dillinger his next dead-or-alive collar.

With this, we cut back to Purvis’s quarry, who’s swiftly cleaning out the vault of a bank somewhere in Indiana with Van Meter, Pierpont and Makley.  Dillinger’s efficiency is breathtaking (later in the script, he claims he can get in and out in one-minute-forty), and the minutiae of his execution will surely prove fascinating once Mann gets this sucker up on its feet (I especially like Makley’s “git”, a pre-Mapquest “triptik” plotted out to the last tenth of a mile).  Flush once again, Dillinger descends upon Chicago for some long overdue carousing.  He also touches base with the heavy hitters in the Windy City:  Alvin Karpis (the apparent mastermind of the Barker gang**), Frank Nitti, Phil D’Andrea, and so on.  Karpis is enamored of Dillinger, but the others resent his devil-may-care style; in particular, Nitti and D’Andrea would prefer to keep a low-profile and work within the corrupt system rather than shake it up.

It’s during this stay in Chicago that Dillinger lays eyes upon the alleged love of his life:  the exotic, half-Native American Bille Frechette (Cotillard).  Dillinger may live by a strict set of rules (never work with people who are desperate, never work with people who aren’t the best, never work when you’re not ready), but he is an absolute sucker for a pretty woman.  And Bille, a coat-check girl at the Steuben Club, stomps all over every last one of his libidinal weaknesses.  But Dillinger is serious.  He sees Bille as the one for the long haul, and he doesn’t waste time romancing her.  When she protests that she barely knows him, Dillinger lets loose like a verbal Tommy Gun:  “I was raised on a farm in Mooresville, Indiana.  My ma died when I was three.  My daddy beat the hell out of me because he didn’t know no better way to raise me.  I used to do dumb things, but I’m a lot smarter now.  I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you.  What else do you need to know?”  Soon after, they’re a couple.

You can hardly blame Mann for falling in love with the charismatic Dillinger***.  After all, he’s one of his guys:  a stone-cold professional dedicated to doing things the right way with the minimal amount of fuss or collateral damage.  Interestingly, Mann’s sympathies on the law enforcement side seem to favor Purvis’s ringers:  Charles Winstead, Clarence Hurt and Gerry Campbell.  When the shit goes down (particularly in a ferocious, late second act shootout in Manitowish, Wisconsin involving the erratic “Baby Face” Nelson), it’s brutally evident that these are the only guys capable of touching a pro like Dillinger.  And Mann respects that.  Shit, when his time comes, Dillinger respects that.

Thematically, this is overly familiar territory for Mann.  If there’s a new wrinkle, it’s that Dillinger is as committed to a good time as he is to his chosen craft – which he will not renounce even though it’s clear he’s grown obsolete.  “Only thing that’s important is where somebody’s going,” he tells Bille.  And when it becomes clear he’ll never get there with Bille, he makes peace with the universe under the marquee of the Biograph Theatre (where he just took comfort in the second-rate charms of W.S. Van Dyke’s Manhattan Melodrama).  

If this isn’t Mann’s most personal work, who cares?  This script fucking moves.  And its unrelenting velocity ensures that – provided Mann does his typically brilliant job behind the camera (with Dante Spinotti, who is 100% confirmed as the film’s DP) – Public Enemies will be his biggest box office hit ever.  This is Mann’s The Untouchables, the one that will keep him working through the next decade with final cut and budgets worthy of his expansive vision.  Let the guy have a little fun, and then let him get back to being one of our most essential filmmakers.

Why It Should Be Great:  There’s somewhere around five heists in the screenplay and two major shootouts (the most involved being the FBI ambush of Dillinger’s hideout in Wisconsin).  While the action doesn’t overwhelm the character development, it’s more of an emphasis than it’s ever been in a Mann film.  If nothing else, this is going to be an enormously entertaining movie.

Why It Might Miss:  No chance.  Mann’s a professional.  This is not his Amy Brenneman.  

What’s Next:  Land of the Lost.

*Mann was also about four years late on the Ali resurgence incited by When We Were Kings and the champ’s inspiring torch lighting moment at the 1996 Olympics.

**A script notation quotes an historian who claims Ma Barker “couldn’t organize breakfast”.

***The screenplay includes this excerpt from a newspaper account of Dillinger’s post-apprehension press conference in Chicago:  “His diction was amazing – better in many instances than that of his interviewers – his poise no less so… There was no hint of hardness about him, no evidence save in the alert presence of armed policemen that he had spent his formative years in a penitentiary.  He had none of the sneer of the criminal… Looking at him for the first time…he rates as the most amazing specimen of his kind ever seen outside of wildly imaginative moving picture.”