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Being Hit by a Smooth Criminal

Public Enemies (2009)

Peter Mountain/Universal Studios

“Public Enemies,” Michael Mann’s latest opus of organized crime, will divide its viewers into two camps. They will consist, respectively, of those who support the application of the harsh, grainy digital cinematography – that has become his preferred method of working – to a period piece and those who do not.

I’m inclined to adopt the latter position. The movie loses a crucial illusory element in its rejection of the richer, more vibrant conventional film format for the more withdrawn, documentary-like HD. The entire production feels less like a fully put-together, immersive piece of cinema than a polished home movie rendering of people playing dress-up. The discordance between the technical qualities and the attempted recreation of John Dillinger’s (Johnny Depp) world keeps the story at an emotional distance. The cinematic apparatus calls such attention to itself that the audience is made constantly aware of the fact that “Public Enemies” is, at its core, a collection of manufactured images.

That removed, vérité effect clashes wildly with another of the film’s major flaws – the misguided apotheosizing of Dillinger – while it amplifies a second: the relentless, deadened focus on process that subsumed Mr. Mann’s “Miami Vice” and irrevocably harms “Public Enemies.” It’s easy to admire the picture, to appreciate the audacity of Mr. Mann’s experiment, but — as was the case with “Vice” — it’s much harder to enjoy watching it.

Set in 1933, the film follows Dillinger at the apex of his run as a legendary bank robber and all-around outlaw, one of the last of a dying breed glamorized in cinema and sensationalized in the papers. He falls, hard, for Chicago coat-checkout girl Evelyn Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and plots to escape with her to South America after the iconic final scam. At the same time the burgeoning Bureau of Investigation, under the purview of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and Chicago office head Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), conducts a widespread investigation aimed at trapping Dillinger and bringing him to inescapable justice.

Although Mr. Depp tries to give Dillinger some texture, projecting a demeanor that conveys more weary sadness than abject confidence, he’s handcuffed by a screenplay that rubs out the real Dillinger’s rather glaring flaws. The man the filmmaker depicts robs banks for a living and cavorts and parties, but not to any particularly garish extent. He methodically goes about evading the authorities and, when necessary, escaping from jail. Mr. Mann makes him out to be a mundane figure, a regular guy as skilled at his profession as any expert would be at his. The film takes notable shortcuts in its drive to inspire audience identification and sympathy for Dillinger, turning him into a tragic, lovelorn individual driven less by greed than the desire to accumulate enough capital to settle down with his girlfriend. Too often it feels like revisionist history, not unlike that typically displayed in the more entertaining, mythology-heavy gangster films of the past.

The mise-en-scène flawlessly reconstructs the period as Hoover’s G-Men, bedecked in fedoras and trench coats, chase Dillinger and his crew across the Midwest, sparing time to meet and shape their investigation in bland gray office rooms or within the tangle of wires and rudimentary technology that comprise the surveillance facility. Dillinger occupies picturesque halfway houses and cluttered hotel rooms, in between sojourns to gargantuan, marble floored banks or nights on the town with Evelyn. Everyone gets together for hand-held, meticulously choreographed machine gun fights in darkened settings enlivened by the fiery spray of bullets and stylized to bring back memories of a gentler, simpler era of onscreen violence.

Yet it’s all rendered with such an existential focus on the repetitive day-to-day details of Purvis’s investigation and Dillinger’s evasion that the characters are consumed by the plot. Mr. Mann is, as ever, less interested in the inevitable outcome of all this — Dillinger’s famous death at the hands of his investigators outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater — than the steps taken to get there. With the exception of the Evelyn subplot, bolstered by Ms. Cotillard’s superb, sympathetic work, the movie rarely breaks free from its straightforward look at the intricacies of the investigation. Mr. Bale is denied the opportunity to make Purvis into more than an empty vessel. He’s never seen outside of a working environment and there is not, as there was in “Heat,” the requisitely palpable sense of just what’s driven him to obsessively target Dillinger. This classically oriented cops-and-robbers narrative, set against a potent, evocative Depression-era backdrop, falls short in the areas that set great cinema apart: the conveyance of ecstatic emotional truth with images, not words, and the unparalleled ability to transport viewers into the heart and mind of someone very different from themselves.


Opens on July 1 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Michael Mann; written by Mr. Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, based on the book by Bryan Burrough; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Paul Rubell and Jeffrey Ford; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Nathan Crowley; produced by Mr. Mann and Kevin Misher; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Johnny Depp (John Dillinger), Christian Bale (Melvin Purvis), Marion Cotillard (Billie Frechette), Billy Crudup (J. Edgar Hoover), Stephen Dorff (Homer Van Meter), Jason Clarke (Red Hamilton) and Stephen Lang (Charles Winstead).


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