Michael Mann, director of "Public Enemies," has capped an extremely impressive decade of work with a movie that approaches greatness but just misses. His take on the violent gangsters of the 1930s and their pursuit by the FBI fails to find the emotional center it so desperately needs to rise above the level of a really good cops-and-robbers film.
"Public Enemies" opens with John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) returning to the state penitentiary that housed him for 8 1/2 years and breaking out some still-imprisoned buddies. He then embarks on a crime spree across the Midwest, inspiring the newly formed FBI to mint him public enemy No. 1 and its director, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), to put Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), his best man, on the case.
What follows is a beautifully shot and gripping game of cat and mouse between Purvis and Dillinger, punctuated with frequent (and stunning) bank robberies and featuring brief appearances from an all-star rogue's gallery: Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) all pop up. As good as these sequences are, the movie as a whole fails to come together to create something more resonant than a gangster picture.
The emotional center of "Public Enemies" should have been the relationship between Dillinger and his No. 1 gal, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). But Mr. Mann is content to have the pair meet about a third of the way through the film, make eyes at each other, ruminate about traveling to lands previously unthought of and move on, trusting the viewer to understand that these are two people deeply in love and that we should care equally deeply for them.
There's a similar problem at work with regard to Dillinger's relationship with an adoring public. We are made to believe that Dillinger - who is shown gunning down police officers and taking hostages while knocking off banks - is a populist hero. Perhaps he was (though that's debatable, and Bryan Burroughs, the author of the book on which "Public Enemies" is based, might disagree with the glamorization), but we aren't really shown why.
It's a failure of storytelling, one that is entirely unnecessary. Then, as now, the banks were seen as enemies of the people, heartless repositories of wealth repossessing houses and evicting the suffering masses. Though there are a few hints at the nationwide suffering during the Great Depression, Mr. Mann is altogether too subtle in conveying just what transgressions by the moneyed elite turned America into a nation that favored its heroes wielding Tommy guns.
Fortunately, the superior acting lends "Public Enemies" an added layer of gravitas. Mr. Depp's Dillinger is both mannered and unpredictable, while Mr. Bale brings Purvis a steely reserve and Mr. Crudup perfectly captures Hoover's eccentricities and drive for control. Oscar talk already has begun to swirl around Miss Cotilliard's performance, and her closing scene is the film's most poignant.
One turn that won't inspire awards-season buzz but certainly entertains is Mr. Graham's Baby Face Nelson; he plays the famously unhinged gangster with a manic sensibility that brings an extra spark to an already tense film.
TITLE: "Public Enemies"
RATING: R (gangster violence and some language)
CREDITS: Directed by Michael Mann, written by Mr. Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman
WEB SITE: http://www.publicenemies.net/
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes