Jumping off virtually from a standing start, Michael Mann's Public Enemies takes a while to find its feet and its balance. But when it does -- well, to coin a phrase, it comes on like gangbusters.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett, Mann creates a straightforward tale about America's most famous bank-robber, John Dillinger, given the full charismatic treatment by Johnny Depp -- charismatic, if enigmatic. While it plays a little loose with the facts, it builds in intensity as it jumps forward through the final year of Dillinger's life.
Mann, a director occasionally too prone to emphasizing style over substance (the unnecessary Miami Vice movie, for example), here seems more obsessed with story than character. In following Dillinger on his increasingly dangerous trail to his final showdown outside a Chicago movie theater in July 1934, he's working from a script that shows little interest in getting under Dillinger's skin or inside his psyche.
Action is character, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, and Dillinger is a man of action, moving from bank robbery to bank robbery with the occasional hiatus to stop and enjoy the spoils of his enterprise. There's a single speech in which Dillinger tells would-be girlfriend Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) about his parents ("My ma died when I was 4. My pa beat hell out of me but he didn't know no better") -- end of psychologizing or anything else that might explain where Dillinger is coming from.
I take that back: At one point, he says he drew a 10-year sentence for stealing $50 from a grocery store -- and the penitentiary turned into his college of criminal knowledge.
But Mann isn't interested in Dillinger's motivations. He's interested in what he did and in letting Depp show (but not tell) the impact that this life has on him, the toll it takes on his soul.
Mann divides his focus between Dillinger's story and that of Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked by J. Edgar Hoover with bringing Dillinger to justice. As played by Christian Bale, Purvis is a tough, gritty straight arrow -- one who draws the line at Hoover's admonition to "take off the white gloves" and beat the crap out of suspect if it will get him the information he needs.
Kicking off with a daring prison escape (with Dillinger busting pals and mentors out of the Indiana state pen), the film follows Dillinger on his final spree of bank robberies, even as the modern age of crime-fighting -- the burgeoning FBI -- grinds into action. Wire taps, surveillance, fingerprints -- this then-new technology gradually helps Purvis tighten the net on Dillinger.
Dillinger casually lives in Chicago, under the watchful eye of the Italian mob (Capone's crew, now run by Frank Nitti). Eventually, as the FBI gears up and expands its reach with new laws about interstate crime, Dillinger brings too much heat and, Mann suggests, the mob engineers his takedown to get the feds off its own back.
The action is lean and well-directed, with the vicious chatter of machine-guns producing blunt, painful violence. Death has an impact in this movie -- and at various points, both Dillinger and Purvis have the unnerving experience of watching the life bleed out of someone they care about at close range.
Still, it's curious: While I have no trouble recommending this film and came out of it glad that I'd seen it, in retrospect I see the flaws (though they don't really bother me).
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