The real-life story of the final days of John Dillinger may have been scripted by God for Michael Mann to direct. All the Mann elements are there: an existential showdown between two larger-than-life manly men (Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who tracked him down after a prolonged manhunt); an opportunity for unpredictable bursts of stylized and bloody gunfighting; and the '30s setting, which offers the fashion-loving Mann countless occasions to show off his steely-eyed heroes in long black coats and precisely tilted fedoras. This is the material Mann's been waiting for his entire career.
So why is Public Enemies(Universal Pictures), Mann's version of the Dillinger story (based on the recent bio by Bryan Burrough), so oddly unengaging? That's an honest question, not a rhetorical one. As a Mann fan who finds catharsis even in his lesser films (his 2006 Miami Vice made no narrative sense, but it left behind a glorious bundle of vague affects), I went in convinced that Public Enemies would be, at the very least, a rousing cops-and-robbers show and, at the most, a reinvention of the gangster movie. Instead, it's like spending an afternoon—a long one—at a beautifully lit wax-museum display inspired by earlier gangster movies.
A central problem, though by no means the only one, may be that Johnny Depp is miscast as the elusive bank robber. The hugely magnetic Depp rarely plays straight-up action roles (the closest he's come to date may be the undercover agent in Donnie Brasco), and for good reason. The two modes he specializes in are the romantic naïf (Benny and Joon, Finding Neverland) and the flamboyant grotesque (the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Sweeney Todd). His uncharacteristically restrained performance here conveys Dillinger's charisma (and, in a few incongruous but touching scenes, his bouts of fragile neediness) but never the man's pure menace. Obviously, Dillinger didn't become an underworld legend (and outlast all the other big-name gangsters of his day) just by charming the ladies and sporting a mean fedora. He must have been a ruthless sonofabitch, and although everyone around Depp's Dillinger treats him as though that were true, we never see that crazy glint in his eye—he's more Buster Keaton than James Cagney.
Public Enemies' social canvas is limited in scope—there's little attention paid, for example, to the Depression or Prohibition, conditions that made possible the existence of superstar criminals like Dillinger. But Mann does provide a glimpse into the early days of the FBI, which in the '30s was still being dreamed up by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, who's perfectly mastered the newsreel-ready cadences of prewar American speech). Every tiny role is cast with a recognizable actor: Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Channing Tatum, and Stephen Dorff all show up to speak only a few lines apiece. The great character actor Peter Gerety, as a mob lawyer who fulsomely defends Dillinger in court, is a standout in the supporting cast.
Marion Cotillard, as Billie Frechette, the half-French, half-Native American coat-check girl who becomes Dillinger's girl, is a cut above the usual gangster's moll (and like Depp, she wears period costumes like a dream). And, as always, Michael Mann's camera (this time, as in his last two films, it's a high-definition digital one) does gorgeous, daring, and seemingly impossible things: A nighttime shootout in the woods is somehow visible amid total blackness. The chrome trim on a getaway car reflects the scene being fled—and then the open sky.
An image that occurs late in the film's opening prison-break sequence, and that is revisited many times later, is a close-up of a man's face at the moment when, in Dillinger's words, "the life drains out of his eyes." In the one big encounter between Purvis (Christian Bale) and Dillinger—although they're respectively stalking and teasing one another throughout the movie, Depp and Bale rarely share the frame—much is made of this trope, as the two query each other warily through prison bars: Have you seen the life drain out of a man's eyes? Yeah, have you? But it's not clear what Mann is going for by laying such stress on the soul-building (or just voyeuristic?) value of witnessing another's death. When Dillinger himself is finally gunned down on his way out of a movie (spoiler alert, I guess, but has a gangster's ultra-cinematic death ever been so well-documented?), the pathos feels forced; it's as if the viewer, like John Dillinger, has been the victim of a setup.
Slate V: The critics on Public Enemies and other new movies