Public EnemiesDirected by Michael MannStarring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy CrudupRated R*6*Goes well with: Collateral, The Untouchables, Bonnie and Clyde
There are certain legends that come out of events in American history: The band on the Titanic kept playing as it went down. Wild Bill Hickok held a hand of aces and eights when he was gunned down. And Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger, was betrayed by the woman in red. In truth, the skirt Anna Sage wore the night she fingered Dillinger to G-man Melvin Purvis and his cohorts was orange, but it looked red in the lights of the Biograph Theatre marquee. Regardless of its actual color, we know going into Public Enemies—Michael Mann's new film about the 13-month crime spree and killing of Dillinger—that we're going to see the woman in red, just as surely as we knew the Titanic was going to scrape along that iceberg.
So, the question is whether or not it's worth spending the time to get to the foregone conclusion. Well, that's an answer that's not so simple, even if the story of John Dillinger seems like a bulls-eye. Like all of Mann's films, Public Enemies is meticulously researched, gorgeously designed and beautifully shot. It has bank robberies, jailbreaks, shootouts and a look and feel that's exquisite. But that's all style, and the substance of the movie—who Dillinger and Purvis really were, is as cold and impersonal as the pomade both men used to style to their hair.
By now, you know Johnny Depp is Dillinger, and you've probably heard that Christian Bale plays Purvis. Marion Cottilard, best known for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, is Billie Frechette, Dillinger's girlfriend. She is gorgeous and engaging, and among her, Bale and Depp, she's the only one with an Oscar on the mantle. The affair between Frechette and Dillinger is designed to show a more human side of the man, but it's hard to buy his sudden love-at-first-sight obsession and even tougher to understand how a girl who, as she says, hasn't been anywhere or done anything, would sound as though she spent the better part of her life speaking French.
The real issue with the film is that neither Depp, who plays Dillinger as too cool for gangster school, nor Bale, who turns Purvis into a good ol' boy in over his head, are particularly interesting. Bale is downright dull, a real square goody-two-shoes, and, honestly, when Depp's Dillinger says he's too busy having a good time to think about tomorrow, you just don't buy it. The one scene between them is the only time we see Dillinger's swagger, as Depp offers up a little Cap'n Jack Sparrow, entirely in control of the situation even though he's the one behind bars.
The action sequences, the supporting cast and the history almost compensate for the three main characters, who serve to slow down a film that's already clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Billy Crudup is great as J. Edgar Hoover, who uses folks like Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde to justify greater funding for his fledgling Bureau of Investigation. And Stephen Lang, one of the most overlooked and underrated actors of his generation, is terrific and haunting as Charles Winstead, the Southern lawman brought to Chicago to take Dillinger down. Again, the look and feel of the film are stunning. The production design will make you want to run out and buy a nice suit and a Tommy gun, and the cinematography is inventive and unique. As he's done in recent films, Mann shot Public Enemies in high definition, rather than on film, and it gives the art deco sets real texture.
All of the smaller roles, too, add to the ambiance. These are people whose faces and bodies have angles and crannies. That's another important piece of the film's history; they truly appear to be from another time—before we all got fat. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.