The very public slaying of legendary bank robber John Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre in 1934 is as much a moment in the history of film as American crime. The poetic unity of the event is the stuff of dreams. In typically flagrant disregard for his own infamy and imminent peril, Dillinger left a jam-packed screening of the gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama with two attractive women when the heat closed in. They were not there to make an arrest. The fatal bullet exited just below one of the eyes that had been watching the silvery likenesses of Clark Gable and Myrna Loy only moments ago. So the life of John Dillinger ended with the movies, and the movies would soon make a habit of resurrecting him.
Public Enemies is the most recent and surely most expensive retellings of Dillinger’s legacy, and most of its 133 minutes as perplexingly lifeless as Dillinger’s bullet-strewn body once the ambulance arrived. The material, derived from Bryan Burrough’s book of the same name, seems tailor-made for director Michael Mann, yet I’m not sure that any Mann film—and there are contenders—has ever seemed so prosaic, so mechanical and museum-like, so, well, dull. The showdown of masculine archetypes so boldly rendered in films like Heat is here a sort of Hollywood kabuki, stately and un-invested with tension, much less flamboyance.
Questionable choices were made at the executive level. The casting of beautiful and delicate Johnny Depp in a role previously—and marvelously—embodied by the likes of Lawrence Tierney, Ralph Meeker and Warren Oates does neither the often very fine actor nor the film any special favours. With Christian Bale playing the FBI’s top Dillinger hunter Melvin Purvis and, most especially, Billy Crudup playing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, there seems to be a conspiracy of prettified historical revisionism that even by Hollywood standards reads as laughable. While Bale gives an especially remote performance here that does very little to endow Purvis with texture, Crudup provide several of the film’s finest moments in his small role, using a bare minimum of facial and vocal mannerisms to convey a barely restrained and perverse rage for power. It almost makes you forget that this cutie is supposed to be playing a man that more closely resembled, let’s just say it, a troll. Marion Cotillard provides the film’s sole source of warmth as Dillinger’s devoted girlfriend Billie Frechette, yet what seems ostensibly her showcase scene, where she’s tortured by a sadistic and misogynistic cop, is saddled with dialogue that’s strictly boilerplate gangster’s moll.
It’s unclear whether Mann and company are interested in the brutal facts—some of which are present, others ignored, none of which convey new insights—or glamorous myth—the fedoras are so uniformly crisp, the coats splay just so, the cars so clean. There’s so little glamour or fun of even the most vulgar variety in Public Enemies. Though he does have a handful of wonderfully delivered one-liners, Depp mostly seems to be enjoying himself relatively little. Dante Spinotti’s handheld HD cinematography, with its emphatic fleetingness and the weird oiliness of the imagery when brightly-lit and in motion, is deeply exciting in how it furthers the frontiers of this new technology’s visual vocabulary, yet the way it, in collaboration with the costumes and production design, drains all colour from the Great Depression—a potentially timely sociological factor barely registered by the script, incidentally—feels like an empty cliché, making the whole film seem like it was reflected on the surface of an ice-cold razor. The action scenes feature impressive sprays of Tommy gunfire, especially during the nocturnal raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge, yet there’s little spatial coherence, and the piling up of identically dressed and bloodied bodies—some of them famous actors in non-cameos—is easy not to care all that much about.
I can imagine how the overriding aesthetic of Public Enemies could be regarded as admirable, as lean and cold and maybe kind of Jean-Pierre Melville, if you wanted to go that far. But such a take doesn’t account for all the other things the film seems to want to do, like tell an oft-told tale with some new imperative, give us a thrill, or speak to our need for outlaws.