‘Public Enemies’: Even Depp is subdued in sedate gangster drama

  • By Rpbert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 23, 2009 5:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” goes back to the early days of crime movies, back when original gangstas — er, gangsters — were roaming American streets and Hollywood screens.

Names like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson were in the headlines in the early 1930s, as such desperadoes kept ahead of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Those three all figure in this new treatment.

Dillinger, played by a subdued Johnny Depp, is in the midst of his criminal career (which featured some incredible escapes from police custody) when we meet him here.

Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to catch Dillinger.

The film also roams across the stories of Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, although the detached approach makes it difficult to attach names to faces.

Mann renders bank robberies and prison escapes with clarity, which you expect from the director of “Heat” and “Collateral.”

As for the other material, there’s a kind of randomness to it: The deciding factor seems to be whatever strikes Mann’s fancy, be it a nightclub scene or courtroom arguments.

And there’s a love story that could have come straight from a 1930s movie, especially in the sense that it has more prominence in the film than it probably did in Dillinger’s real life. Marion Cotillard, the Oscar-winner from “La vie en rose,” does duty as Public Moll No. 1.

Her role, and the movie in general, pick up steam in the final 45 minutes or so. When it focuses on the final manhunt, “Public Enemies” begins to deliver sustained gangster-movie jolts, including a detailed account of Dillinger’s final night out at the picture show.

Surprisingly, Mann has little to add to the gangster-movie tradition in general; even the depiction of J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup as a glory-seeking public relations expert) seems well-worn. The film’s elliptical style and mostly muted palette are its main distinguishing factors.

Pop culture has often debated whether Dillinger was a Robin Hood character or a psychopath, but Mann isn’t that interested in joining the debate.

Depp’s controlled performance is neutral on the subject, too — but spending time with Johnny Depp, we tend to be on his side by the end of the picture.

Mann is a master of evocative surfaces, and that’s true here too: The locations and costumes all have interest, the music by Eliot Goldenthal is intriguing and certain images leap off the screen.

There’s a supporting character, an FBI agent played by Stephen Lang, and every time he pops up to do or say some awesome thing, the film snaps into rapt attention. This guy is starring in the movie I’d like to see (Mann must like him too, because he shares the final scene). The rest of “Public Enemies” pales in comparison.

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