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 V.18 No.28 | July 9 - 15, 2009 

Film Review

Public Enemies

Michael Mann and Johnny Depp get all dressed up to play cops and robbers

Before the advent of air-conditioning, riding on the outside of a car was all the rage.
Before the advent of air-conditioning, riding on the outside of a car was all the rage.

Public Enemies

Directed by Michael Mann

Cast: Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale

Not to cast aspersions against either Michael Mann’s obvious manliness or his well-established filmmaking skills, but I bet he spent his childhood playing with dolls. From the new-wave Nazi chic of The Keep to the infamous peppermint-striped suits of “Miami Vice” to Daniel Day-Lewis’ slo-mo buckskin fringe in The Last of the Mohicans, Mann has made decisions that often seem more sartorial than directorial. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Mann’s obsessive attention to visual accoutrement—James Caan’s badass welding goggles in Thief, Dennis Farina’s perfect fedora in “Crime Story,” Tom Cruise’s disconcertingly frosted tips in Collateral—has given the director a distinctive and successful style.

“Nice hat.”
“Nice hat.”

Surprising, then, that it’s taken him so long to team up with Johnny Depp. If nothing else, Depp’s eclectic screen choices (Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Sleepy Hollow, From Hell, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sweeney Todd ... need I go on?) prove the man is at his best when playing dress-up. Mann and Depp’s first collaboration, the manly crime saga Public Enemies, affords them both the opportunity to play in that most favored of costumed kiddy milieus: cops and robbers.

Depp leads the film’s outsized cast as real-life Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. The year is 1933 and Dillinger is on a tear, robbing banks at will and basking in the glow of his Robin Hood persona. Battling Congress over appropriation issues, blustery G-man J. Edgar Hoover (an unrecognizable Billy Crudup) figures his best argument for the establishment of a fully funded federal crimefighting force is to capture that cocky criminal Mr. Dillinger. A glorified desk jocky at heart, Hoover hires can-do Southern lawman Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, showing a bit more range than he did during his scowlerrific Terminator Salvation performance) to get the job done.

Much like he did in Heat, Mann chooses to concentrate his story on two men from opposite sides of the law: one flamboyant criminal, one intrepid cop. Public Enemies, however, aspires to epic, historical proportions and mostly succeeds. While dodging the “modern” methods of Purvis, emptying banks, capturing headlines and holding on to his rapidly dwindling gang, Dillinger finds time to romance a humble Chicago hat check girl named Billie Frechette (the lovely Marion Cotillard).

Over the course of its 140-minute runtime, Public Enemies tries on a few different themes like chapeaus in a hat shop. Dillinger is portrayed as the last of the great American bandits, inevitably pushed out to pasture by the birth of organized crime. During the segments with Purvis, the film tries to pit old-school, no-nonsense, Texas-style justice against modern, sophisticated, more bureaucratic forms of law enforcement, leaving Purvis dangling somewhere in the middle. The film also dips its toe into bad-boy romance territory, showing Dillinger as a gentlemanly thief whose inevitable downfall can be chalked straight up to mad love. The film veers wildly between fact and legend but ends up sticking mostly with fact. (The screenplay is based on Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34). Accurate but unfortunate, as the screenplay never quite locates the symbolic weight behind Dillinger’s rise-and-fall story.

The film’s fact-based focus (plus a whole trainload of supporting characters), leaves most cast members lacking in screentime. Bale doesn’t get to dig deep enough into his “between a rock and a hard place” lawman. Cotillard is shifted to the sidelines too often to really resonate as a person. Depp gets the most exposure under the camera lens working on his charismatic, honey-voiced criminal. Ultimately, though, Depp lacks the explosive swagger of Warren Oates’ performance in John Milius’ 1973 effort Dillinger and the thuggish weight Lawrence Tierney lent to the 1945 version—perhaps because the script can’t quite decide what he is. Easygoing sociopath? Romantic antihero? Populist daredevil?

Of course, the one element that doesn’t suffer here is the action. Mann finds plenty of time for chattering Tommy guns and squealing tires. The attention to period detail only adds to the eye-candy appeal: the thick nap of the wool suits, the waxy gleam of the bulbous black cars, the shine of the marble in the art deco bank lobbies. Despite a few missed opportunities to get his actors, you know, acting, Michael Mann has still managed to craft a convincing summer action movie for adults. It may be a slight case of style over substance. But it’s fine style.


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