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Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Public Enemies.
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Public Enemies.

A poet of mayhem offers only guns and poses Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Public Enemies

  • Directed by Michael Mann
  • Written by Michael Mann, Anne Biderman and Ronan Bennett
  • Starring Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard
  • Classification: 14A

Michael Mann's lush and long biographical film about the famed 1930s bank robber John Dillinger has soft and oily murderous night scenes. Gun muzzles blaze white in the indigo night. Shots ring out in a symphony of different rhythms and registers.

By day, the dapper Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his gang treat a bank robbery like a ballet, leaping over counters, pouring cash into bags and jumping into gleaming black Fords. Dillinger, whose brief bank-robbing career paralleled the heyday of the Hollywood 1930s gangster film, should have been a natural fit for Mann. From his first feature, Thief , through his TV series Miami Vice and Crime Story to the epic cops and robbers duel in Heat , Mann has shown himself a poet of shoot 'em up mayhem. Public Enemies should have been his grand opus. Instead, the film feels restrained and pictorial. Compared with the convulsions of Bonnie and Clyde , The Godfather or Brian De Palma's The Untouchables , or the raging gangster flicks of the Thirties, it's a coffee-table book.

Dialogue is mumbled, sometimes inaudible. A stream of familiar faces (Giovanni Ribisi, Channing Tatum, Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor and Leelee Sobieski) flit by. Dramatic momentum is sacrificed in the scrambled script (based on journalist Bryan Burrough's book and written by Mann with Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett), which attempts to blend docudrama, social history and fanciful romance.

The best part is the docudrama, which walks us through the legendary heists and escapes in detail, from the time of Dillinger's escape from an Indiana prison in 1933 to his death at the hands of federal agents in Chicago, 14 months later. The highlight is an FBI night raid on Dillinger and his cohorts holed up in Wisconsin's Little Bohemia lodge, as cinematographer Dante Spinotti's high-definition-video cinematography shows the blackest night in lustrous intensity.

Less engaging is the jumpy social-history focus on the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, suggesting weird psychosexual undercurrents) and the tightly wound federal agent Melvyn Purvis (Christian Bale) to establish the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a national crime-fighting tool. The story unfolds through flashbulb-flare press conferences and urgent phone calls. Bale, Crudup and Depp are all dark-haired, similarly dressed and coiffed; the film might have been called Men with Cheekbones.

The FBI, in its early days, is hindered by Hoover's prissy insistence that his agents be clean-cut and above reproach, but the criminals easily outsmart and out-gun them. To convey Purvis's relentlessness, his pursuit is accompanied by the urgent banjo line of Otis Taylor's 10 Million Slaves . Challenging Hoover's methods, he sends for some real Texas killers to do the dirty work. Some of federal agents play rough, using "vigorous physical interviews" (a.k.a. torture) to extract information. They smack around Dillinger's gal, Billy Frechette (Marion Cotillard), like a terrorism suspect.

As part of the social history, we also see Dillinger's downfall isn't just because of the FBI, but also because of Frank Nitti, Al Capone's No. 2, who runs the mob's gambling syndicate and who clamps down on the rogue bank robber for bringing federal heat down on his interstate operations. What's strangely missing from this social picture is any image of the economic misery that made Dillinger a folk hero.

Finally, there's the romance, which is historically fanciful, dreamy and lacking in fleshly immediacy. Cotillard, last year's Oscar winner for La Vie en Rose , is a hat-check girl he meets at a nightclub and sweeps off her feet, while Diana Krall croons a velvety version of Bye Bye Blackbird from a stage.

Something's askew here. Mann's HD video, so effective in night scenes, isn't kind in close-ups, and Cotillard, whose French accent always feels a whisper away, looks tired, with dark circles under her eyes. In contrast, Depp, in his mid-40s, looks far younger and softer than the real Dillinger did when he was gunned down at 31. As if still in Captain Jack mode, Depp inadvertently suggests the possibility that Public Enemy No. 1 wore Guyliner.

More puzzling, Depp's mildly mocking, low-key charm makes his character inscrutable. Instead of a sociopath, he's a princely fellow who likes fine things, financed by other people's earnings.

There's just a suggestion that Dillinger may have confused himself with a movie character. We see him in a Chicago theatre, raptly registering every scene of a gangster flick, Manhattan Melodrama (the script won an Oscar) with Clark Gable and William Powell, before stepping out into the street to meet his death.

Perhaps the most regrettable crime here is the way that Mann, trying to do too much, robs himself of a great opportunity. Here was a chance to capture the drama of the Thirties, a decade when the Hollywood imagination machine was at its most potent, when movie dreams and tales of bullet-spattering madmen held the collective imagination.

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