Michael Mann likes the central plot of Heat – expert cop and master thief and their teams on a destructive path towards one another with disregard for their personal lives – that this is the third time he’s made it, after the TV-movie L.A. Takedown, the DeNiro/Pacino classic and now this depression-era take, pitting Johnny Depp’s public enemy number one John Dillinger against Christian Bale’s FBI man Melvin Purvis (whose name is almost an anagram of Mr Evil Penis, but is one for vermin pelvis). (For all I know this is also the plot of Miami Vice and the Last of the Mohicans, I haven’t got round to watching them yet but it seems unlikely.)
The parallels with Heat run deep – the first criminal act, an opening prison break, is almost botched by a trigger happy accomplice soon removed from the group – but the key difference is the pivotal central scene where our two leads meet. In Heat, DeNiro’s thief McCauley and Pacino’s cop Hanna share a mutual respect, that they are dealing here with the other side of their own coin, a talented man with opposite morals. Here, Dillinger and Pervis despise one another, disgusted that they are within the other’s presence or mentioned in the same breath. This complex central relationship was key to the layered texture of Heat, and its absence is felt.
Depp has always been better at characters (Scissorhands, Sparrow) than he has emotions, and Dillinger is bland and lifeless in his hands, yet still more likeable than Bale’s cold, business-like Pervis. DiCaprio would probably have been a better fit for Dillinger, but as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover appears here as Billy Crudup this would have made DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood’s current biopic of the man problematic.
All this in account, this is still an entertaining action/crime movie, with plenty of period gun porn for those that way inclined. Mann’s attention to detail is perfect, and there is some of the best comedy ever seen in a 1930s set cop movie – see Dillinger wondering around the offices of the FBI department out to catch him, casually asking the score of a sports game. Smarter and more thought provoking than most gun-happy movies, this is definitely worth a watch.
Choose film 7/10