As a star-driven biography of celebrated anti-hero John Dillinger that the Chicago-born director shot in a number of the actual locations of Dillinger's Midwestern crimes, Michael Mann's Public Enemies, from a screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, intrinsically promises an elaboration of one of the director's most distinguishing features as a filmmaker, namely his self-reflexive emphasis on the places depicted in his films, within a genre that has found Mann at his slightest: the biopic. With Public Enemies, Mann does not manage to reverse this latter trend - though it is also worth noting that even slight Mann is better than the vast majority of new studio releases - due largely to the relative lack of stress placed on the film's real-world locales, in addition to the slow even for Mann pace and the surprising lack of verve displayed by Johnny Depp in the role of Dillinger. Michael Mann's Heat-lite (1995) could have used a little of Al Pacino's histrionics - or a bit more of Jack Sparrow.
Public Enemies opens in an Indiana state penitentiary in the fourth year of the Great Depression. In this initial location, Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti mimetically limit their high-definition DV palette to drab blacks, whites, greys and tans, to which they will add a washed-out sky blue in a subsequent exterior of the prison. (Public Enemies's attention to color builds on Miami Vice's  primary aesthetic achievement.) In this latter set-up, Mann and Spinotti opt for a strongly horizontal, static framing that the director repeats in other views of the big Midwestern sky, whereas their camera relies heavily on hand-held tight framings within the interior itself. This alteration between hand-held DV close-ups and wider angles, be it the wide horizon meeting an Indiana dirt road or the fluid steady cam that follows the bank robbers into a marble-filled Wisconsin place of business, provides Public Enemies with a visual rhythm that is further accented by a cutting pattern that remains unpredictable in its choice of future angles.
However, in visual highs like the film's first bank robbery, bathed in a warm, phosphorescent yellow, Mann's camera is not permitted to cutaway and linger on the setting, as it would so often on the Chicago skyline of Thief (1981) or that of Los Angeles in the director's masterpiece Collateral (2004). Here Dillinger and company have their "minute forty... flat" to get in and out, thereby requiring the film's spectators to get their fill of the space in the crew's short time in the bank. In this regard, though Public Enemies announces an emphasis on place that again is among the interesting features of Mann's art, it fails to add this emphasis to the film's narrative, which ultimately is the key to the Collateral's achievement in particular. Then again, Collateral's sequence of spaces, always calibrated to highlight its nocturnal views, structured the film's narrative as it moved toward daybreak, and thus according to the film's internal logic, to the picture's end. Here, there is no similar rationale, save for the non-fiction itinerary of Public Enemies's principle subject.
Nor does Mann altogether maintain his focus on procedure that is apparent throughout Thief, for example. Whereas that film opens with a lengthy safe-cracking scored with a period-defining synth soundtrack - the entire work is period-defining in the mood it establishes, and ouevre-defining for America's signature (action-oriented, Chicago- and Los Angeles-based ) 1980s director - Public Enemies rarely focuses so resolutely on the interworkings of Dillinger's profession. The primary counter-example, of course, is the extended second escape from prison, wherein Mann follows Dillinger from room-to-room as he systematically breaks free, aided initially only by a hand-carved and tinted fake handgun. The film's bank-robbery set-pieces again do not allow for the emphasis on process that many of the director's finer crime pictures depict.
Mann's focus on criminal endeavor belongs, surely, to his larger, genre-inflected treatment of American masculinity, as Lisa K. Broad notes, which itself accounts for both the drift toward myth contained in his films, and his attraction to your Muhammad Ali's and John Dillinger's, on the level of subject. Or to put it another way, Mann's films are always about American narratives, and thus about film, which is no less the case for Public Enemies as it is for any of his previous efforts. Here, the director's self-reflexivity finds some of its most direct expression in a trio of nocturnal set-pieces: his arrival on an Indiana tarmac, illuminated by exploding flares and cracking camera flashes; Dillinger's low-key, albeit spotlit escape through the Wisconsin woods; and finally, the aftermath surrounding his assassination outside the Biograph theater. In each of these passages, artificial lighting, gushing in from strong directional light sources, traces if not engulfs Depp's protagonist, recurrently in characteristically grainy - and therefore, DV-specific - images. Thus, Dillinger is transformed from bank robber into (digital-era) movie star.
Michael J. Anderson's Michael Mann feature-film taxonomy:
Career Peaks: Collateral, Heat
Exceptional Films (Just Below Peak): Miami Vice, Thief, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Manhunter (1986)
Good (If Comparatively Lesser): The Insider (1999)*, Public Enemies
Sub-par: Ali (2001)
Haven't Seen: The Keep (1983)
* Note: I have not seen The Insider since shortly after its initial release, and as such, trust my judgment less in its case than in that of any of the others. I guess I would say that The Insider is at least "good," where I will rank it for the time being, and quite possibly even "exceptional," though my instinct tells me that it does not belong among the "career peaks." But that's all it is, instinct.