'Public Enemies': Michael Mann's Mobster Waxworks

Johnny Depp i i

As the notorious John Dillinger, Johnny Depp seems to relish the opportunity to play a suave — and dangerous — Depression-era criminal. Universal hide caption

itoggle caption Universal
Johnny Depp

As the notorious John Dillinger, Johnny Depp seems to relish the opportunity to play a suave — and dangerous — Depression-era criminal.

Universal

Public Enemies

  • Director: Michael Mann
  • Genre: Crime, Drama
  • Running Time: 143 minutes

Rated R: Violence, Sex Scenes, Profanity

With: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup

The most powerful emotion in Public Enemies is Johnny Depp's love of being a movie star, getting to wear wide-brim fedoras and long black coats and spats and firing Tommy guns at G-men. And I ask you, my friends: Who wouldn't love that? It's the coolest fantasy ever.

And Depp is happily in sync with his role: His John Dillinger loves being a celebrity, too, and loves that he can hide among the people, who think he's a folk hero. At the start of the film, Dillinger and his cohorts break out of prison, and soon he's dressed to the nines at a nightclub and thunderstruck by the sight of a luscious, soft-curled Marion Cotillard.

Cotillard's Billie Frechette joins him at his table, smitten back in a way that's highly credible, even if her American accent sinks somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Obviously, Depp's Dillinger is a romantic, which is what will bring him down: Former gang members tell him the age of the independent operator is ending, soon to be replaced by coldhearted syndicates.

If Public Enemies director Michael Mann has a moral point of view on Dillinger's bank robberies — which get a lot of people killed — I couldn't discern it. His central motif is a retread of the one he peddled in Heat: That Dillinger and Christian Bale's FBI agent Melvin Purvis, though on opposite sides, have a code that's distinct from those of their respective cohorts.

Dillinger doesn't shoot anyone in cold blood — as opposed to Stephen Graham's Baby Face Nelson, who cackles at his carnage. Purvis offers a contrast to fellow cops who torture suspects, and most of all to the power-grabbing, image-mongering FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who's played by Billy Crudup in an astounding transformation, fatted and vaguely effeminate.

Public Enemies doesn't really have a theme, but it has a tone and a tempo and look — a palette that's fascinatingly weird. Mann shot it on high-def video, which is subtly different than film. Branches in a forest at night are so sharp they're like etchings on the screen, while the air itself seems thick, the perspectives shortened.

I think this look was better suited to Mann's recent Miami Vice movie, with its druggy, tropical haze, but the shootouts here work like, uh, gangbusters. The camera offers only limited vantages, and there's an eerie disjunction between the over-bright muzzle fire and the guns' muffled pops, like distant firecrackers. High-def does have one distracting downside: You can detect the male actors' pancake make-up — which is especially unfortunate in the case of Bale, who now looks as well as acts like a wax dummy.

Public Enemies has lots of incidental pleasures — gorgeous costumes, an electrifying comeuppance for Baby Face Nelson, a second escape from prison that's ingeniously staged. But it's only Depp's goofy sense of fun that keeps it from seeming inert.

After Michael Jackson's untimely though perhaps inevitable death, I re-watched his music video of the song 'Smooth Criminal." It's a gangster fantasia with rat-tat-tat, staccato hoofing and a touch of Guys and Dolls. It's everything Public Enemies isn't: madly inventive, genre-bending, at once a study in urban paranoia and a passionate tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner.

The video reminds you why the gangster became a pop-culture existential hero: Under threat, Jackson seizes the space. Michael Mann's vision lacks that inner spark. He's made a period gangster museum piece — it doesn't dance.

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