I wasn't expecting art, but I reckoned that a director known for action paired with two generally charismatic lead actors could make a real-life gangster story into an enjoyable, stylish shoot-'em-up. I was wrong.
Public Enemies, Michael Mann's muddled bio-pic about bank-robber John Dillinger, is long, slow and frequently confusing. In part, because it's also the story of an FBI agent, Melvin Purvis, assigned to bring in Dillinger -- which is even more boring. And on the back-burner, Mann barely stirs a pot that contains narrative fragments ranging from internecine law-enforcement battles to the appeal of gangsters as folk heroes to the impact of laws covering interstate crime. Neither the two main ingredients, nor the intriguing bits and pieces, add up to a cohesive, engaging experience.
The film opens in 1933, or what the intertitle calls "the Golden Age of Bank Robbery." After a jailbreak in Indiana, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and various henchmen rob a bank somewhere and re-settle in plush Chicago digs. There, Dillinger falls for a hat-check girl (Marion Cotillard), and vows to never ever leave her. He makes her swear the same, but ultimately, there's not much depth to this romance.
Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), head of the Bureau of Investigation, launches a "war on crime" with promised "modern techniques." Intriguing, but we don't see much of this other than some laborious phone-tapping and eagle-eyed tailoring analysis of a gangster's mislaid overcoat ("top stitching ... probably cost $35").
Hoover is after "public enemy No. 1, John Dillinger" -- though why Dillinger earned the top spot isn't clear -- and puts his best agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) on the job. We know Purvis is a dedicated man-hunter -- we just saw him fatally gun down Pretty Boy Floyd, who popped up out of nowhere running through an orchard. (Never mind that in reality, Floyd outlived Dillinger by four months.)
If you're confused, join the club. Mann unrolls two-and-a-half hours of film without much plot, little historical context, virtually no character development of its two leads, too many unexplained supporting players and a marked lack of intrigue. (Mann's first mistake is the plural title: Despite cameos from Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and a gambling syndicate, this film's focus is on Dillinger.)
History suggests that the 1930s was a fascinating period wherein the escalating standoff between increasingly sophisticated criminals and law enforcement played out in a very public arena, both sides abetted by hyperbolic media and claiming the public's affection. It's a dynamic conflict -- the colorful law-breaker vs. the square-jawed crime-fighter -- that still intrigues, in life and in entertainment. But Mann never establishes the allure Dillinger had for the public, nor how the good-guy lawmen were otherwise perceived.
The film's chief tension should come from the intertwined fates of Dillinger and Purvis, two men in a public and personal contest with only one winner. Yet, the film never fleshes out what motivates these two men. Dillinger hints that his desire to rob banks runs deeper than simply easy cash. And, what drives Purvis' steely fervor? At best, the slim story suggests that Purvis is scared of Hoover's hissy fits.
All this missing depth, context and nuance are critical in a bio-pic with a known conclusion. If there's no cat-and-mouse or deeper examination, all we get is a slow-moving comic book. (The hothouse nature of this film is never more obvious than in a scene where Dillinger visits the situation room set up for his own capture, and chats with unsuspecting lawmen.)
Bale is wasted in his poorly defined role, and while Depp can do impishly charming quite fine, he was less convincing the few times Dillinger had to show his ugly, violent side. Mostly, I took away the impression of actors modeling tatty vintage threads in marvelous period settings.
Mann, who created Miami Vice and directed 1995's Heat, has action bona fides. But, Enemies' scenes amounted to baffling shoot-outs in which G-Men were indistinguishable from OGs: guys in dark overcoats and wide-brimmed felt hats firing guns at one another. The set-piece shoot-out at a Wisconsin lodge resembled outtakes from a videogame, with lots of machine-gun fire, bullets ripping into walls and generic men falling over.
Past the two-hour mark in this film, Dillinger goes to the movies and catches the 1934 Clark Gable crime flick, Manhattan Melodrama, which also turns on the intertwined fates of two men -- a charming gangster and the by-the-book lawman who takes him down. Mann excerpts the old film at his peril, because even that dusty, old potboiler looks a lot snappier and more fun to watch.