Michael Mann ambitiously tries to forge the historical, iconographic and cultural aspects of American gangsterdom in “Public Enemies,” with results more admirable than electrifying. Centering on bank robber John Dillinger, the most publicized of the many Depression-era outlaws whose transgressions fostered the rise of the FBI, Hollywood’s specialist in great-looking crime stories has put images on the screen that are compelling to watch even though the overall impact is muted. Oddly, too, the film is somewhat shortchanged by its great star, Johnny Depp, who disappointingly has chosen to play Dillinger as self-consciously cool rather than earthy and gregarious. With dark commercial clouds currently hovering over expensive big-star vehicles and period pieces, Universal has no choice but to push the film hard as a glamorous gangbuster entertainment, which it is only in part. Mid-level biz is most likely.
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For all his celebrity, Dillinger has only fronted two previous Hollywood features, and low-budgeters at that: Max Nosseck’s undistinguished, wildly fictional 1945 Monogram cheapie starring a tough Lawrence Tierney, and John Milius’ uneven 1973 AIP effort in which Warren Oates’ performance emphasized the anti-hero’s folksy and funny sides. Neither is very satisfactory, leaving a void “Public Enemies” endeavors to fill with a full-canvas approach that, inspired by the enormous detail provided by Bryan Burrough’s terrific 2004 book, hews with considerable, although not complete, fidelity to the historical record.
Like other Mann films, this one offers a lot of ominously rumbling, meticulously embroidered downtime occasionally interrupted by spasms of violence and action. After briefly alluding to Dillinger’s prior nine-year prison term, the yarn begins cracklingly with the outlaw engineering the mass escape of old cohorts from the Indiana State Penitentiary. The year is 1933, “the golden age of bank robbery,” as a front title puts it, a time when the public readily extended its sympathy to robbers who preyed upon the banks, which many blamed for their financial distress.
The specific sociopolitical conditions of the time are crucial to the story, but one big thing almost entirely missing from “Public Enemies” is the Depression itself. It’s suggestive of where Mann’s true interests lie — or perhaps, where they don’t — that one almost never sees poverty, desperation or even poor grooming; everyone here wears fabulous clothes and almost always looks their very best. Dillinger most frequently robbed banks in small or medium-sized towns, but here he only bothers with vast marble palaces of impeccable design.
In Depp’s unavoidably attractive impersonation, Dillinger is a personable, somewhat low-key guy who’s loyal to his pals and alluring to the ladies, particularly to nightclub coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who quickly becomes his companion. Advised by his smart criminal cohort Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) that “what we’re doin’ won’t last forever,” Dillinger replies that he has thoughts of doing nothing else because he’s “having too much fun.”
Karpis proves correct, however, since J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI quickly mobilizes to address the mayhem at large in the country’s heartland. Hoover (Billy Crudup, disarmingly good) appoints tight-lipped straight arrow Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to run his Chicago office. Purvis and his crew inexorably put the screws on, just as the city’s organized crime syndicate, run by Al Capone’s old No. 2, Frank Nitti (Bill Camp), becomes annoyed by the FBI scrutiny aroused by Dillinger and other loose cannons.
So “Public Enemies” emerges as a formidable tapestry documenting the indelible seismic shifts of large criminal and law enforcement entities that significantly define an era. As before in Mann’s work, there is a magisterial inevitability to the way the opposing forces gradually converge until violent confrontation is inevitable, a style that justifies the time and attention to detail involved in creating it.
The methodical approach makes the violence particularly startling. The highlight here is a nocturnal attack by Purvis’ team on Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) and others holed up at the remote Little Bohemia lodge. Much attention is paid to the quality of the gunshots, the sounds really pop, and Dante Spinotti’s HD cinematography excels at rendering the darkest possible nighttime blacks upon which the gun blasts expode with bursts of white light.
Script by Irish scribe Ronan Bennett, Mann and Ann Biderman dives intelligently and deeply into its subject, although it is Mann’s way to deliberately pare connective tissue, a strategy magnified here by the unintelligibility of a fair amount of dialogue. The chilliness verging on artiness of the style suggests a director bent on suppressing his instincts as a popular entertainer, which would actually be fine if balanced by a warm central performance. Curiously, though, after letting loose in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” pictures and other films, Depp reverts to a more withdrawn, self-regarding posture, portraying Dillinger as a man who, having discovered his role in life, determined to play it according to a script of his own devising.
Bale plays Purvis as a clenched stoic trying to keep his deep tension bottled up, while Cotillard, speaking English with just a slight accent, is lovely and fine as the lady who wins the bad man’s heart.
Clad in similar suits and large coats, topped by virtually identical haircuts and given few opportunities to pop out of the backgrounds (it’s a variation on the “Black Hawk Down” syndrome), even some of the known secondary players can be difficult to identify. Still, one who does shine is Stephen Lang, from Mann’s old “Crime Story” TV show, terrific as the lawman who utters the film’s final lines. Ribisi as Karpis, Peter Gerety as Dillinger’s shrewd showboating attorney and Branka Katic as the woman who betrays the outlaw to the feds all have their brief moments.
Mann’s decision to shoot in HD rather than film again has its plusses and minuses; the detail and depth of field are phenomenal in the dark scenes, but the bright flaring, occasional unnatural movements and excessive detailing of skin flaws remain annoying, as does the insubstantiality of the images compared to those created on film. Digital may represent the future, but the future is not entirely here yet, and the pictorial qualities of Mann’s films prior to “Collateral” remain decisively superior to the recent trio.
Other production qualities are exceptional across the board, and extensive location work in Illinois and Wisconsin pays off in physical authenticity. Elliot Goldenthal’s brooding score combines with period music to create an effectively eclectic soundtrack.