‘Public Enemies’: Elemental cops and robbers

June 29, 2009

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 cowrote 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 wrote, 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).


As I said, this movie is all about the action: There’s very little that could be construed as scenes of Dillinger planning his heists. The bank jobs themselves are brief – the shoot-outs and get-aways afterward take up more time. There’s little of the flashy melodrama, for example, that made Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables” so operatically enjoyable.


The characters themselves are defined by what they do and what they wear, rather than what they have to say. Everything we know about Dillinger seems to come from Depp’s mysterious smile and the minimal scenes of him wooing Billie Frechette. The vibe between Depp and Cotillard is strong enough to compensate for their minimal time together onscreen. Indeed, we learn more about Billie from an interrogation scene – when she won’t give up Dillinger to an abusive FBI agent – than from virtually anything else she says.


I was also struck by the number of familiar character actors who pop up in the film with little or nothing to do. Before you can say, “Hey, isn’t that (Sean Hatosy, Don Harvey, Matt Craven, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor)?”, they’re gone from the screen. It speaks to the notion that this 2½-hour film could have been much, much longer (not that it ever feels long).


In essence, it’s Depp and Bale’s film, both playing taciturn characters who command the screen by their sheer presence. Depp’s Dillinger is obviously star material, but without being showy about it; Dillinger isn’t a cut-up, a wisecracker or a card, just a guy with an amused take on life. Neither is Bale’s Purvis someone who takes charge by the power of his personality – he’s not Al Pacino in “Heat.” He’s a toiler, a guy who does the work and gets the results without making a big deal about it – and still beats himself up later for not doing the job better.


Billy Crudup does get laughs as the uptight, controlled but hard-charging J. Edgar Hoover – as much for the material as for the unspoken awareness of his relationship with his aide, Clyde Tolson (an all but silent performance by Chandler Williams).


If anything, I could have done with more of Stephen Lang as a Texas lawman who Purvis recruits for his Dillinger hunt. With his piercing eyes and intense presence, Lang makes himself felt with no more than a few lines. Not that we needed comic banter between him and Purvis – but this is a character whose substance is apparent; having him be more directly involved in the action would have benefited the film.


“Public Enemies” is what it advertises itself to be: a straight-ahead gangster movie with action, suspense and drama. It’s not a movie that begs the audience to like it or tries to seduce the audience with its style. When it’s over, you know you’ve seen something of weight and import.


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