Public Enemies | Charismatic Johnny Depp Stars at John Dillinger

Johnny Depp plays cool-as-a-cucumber John Dillinger in Public Enemies . ( © 2009 Universal Pictures)

Michael Mann is perhaps the most “pro” director of the last 25 years—he’s incredibly rigorous, composed, and rich. No one films shoot-outs, battles, or heists better and no one portrays steely, professional badasses as well as Mann. Mann’s peak came between 1986 and 1995 when he directed Manhunter, The Last of The Mohicans, and Heat—thrilling, elegant films about men who are the best at their respective professions and are tested by the brutality of their world.

Since those peaks, Mann has become increasingly studied and static. I still enjoy his movies (even the much-loathed Miami Vice), but there’s an embalmed quality. Public Enemies looks great, sounds great (those shotgun flashes!), and features magnetic performances from Johnny Depp and Billy Crudup, but somehow it doesn’t gel. It should pop; instead, it just simmers.

Public Enemies follows the last two years of John Dillinger’s life, from his escape from a big state prison (a fantastic sequence) to his famous death outside a movie theater. In the interim he is relentlessly pursued by Melvin Purvis (serious, stiff Christian Bale), his buddies in crime are gunned down, and he falls for a beautiful coat checker, Billie (Marion Cotillard). In addition, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is using Dillinger’s heists as the impetus for the creation of the FBI.

It’s a heady, whirlwind story, but somehow it ends up a bit episodic and flat. Depp is fantastically charismatic; it’s a joy and a relief to see him playing a suave, handsome man instead of resorting to the bizarre kabuki contortions he’s become so fond of. The set design and art direction is lush and lived in, and the Little Bohemia Lodge shoot-out is destined to be another Mann masterpiece of choreography and bullets. But it just doesn’t quite click. It doesn’t have the poetic Midwestern fatalism of Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands, and it doesn’t hold the charge of class and poverty and myth like Altman’s highly underrated Thieves Like Us. It’s just a competent, entertaining movie. 

I want more from Michael Mann. I want his soulful, stone-cold pop koans. He’s got it in him, he just has to loosen the reins a little and keep hiring people like Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis.  B

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