Directed by Michael Mann. Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, Emilie de Ravin, Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup. (2009, R, 143 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 3, 2009
When photos circulated last week on the web of Johnny Depp in full dress and make-up as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's forthcoming Alice in Wonderland, one could hardly suppress a yawn. Any other major Hollywood star in white pancake, green-tinted contacts, and Bozo the Clown-like red mange, there might have been a stir, but we expect this sort of thing from Depp. He seems almost perversely drawn to outsized, heavily lacquered characters: the demon barber, the pirate swish, that sad-eyed topiary stylist. Sure, Depp knows how to act on a human scale – he's never been more thoughtful or convincing than in Lasse Hallström's What's Eating Gilbert Grape – but it doesn't always feel like comfortable ground for him. Where he is rock-solid here is in capturing the innate charisma and confidence of John Dillinger, one of the title's public enemies – the famed bank robbers, common hoods, and Robin Hoods of the Thirties who enjoyed rat-a-tat nicknames and the fascination, even hero worship, of a Depression-rocked nation. When "Pretty Boy" Floyd (Tatum) is gunned down in the film's opening, he renounces the shorthand and reclaims his birth name as he burbles up blood; lyrically shot and performed, the scene foreshadows a thematic tension between the public and private persona, as well as a dozen more deaths to come, many at the same hand (or is it trigger finger?) as Floyd's – J. Edgar Hoover's rising star and yes-man, Melvin Purvis, played by Bale with the same ramrod cheerlessness that's dogged his Aughties work (somebody hire this guy to do a romantic comedy-as-cleanse, please). Purvis tightens his focus, as does the film, to his public enemy No. 1, John Dillinger. Fans of Mann's masterful Heat might have hoped for another cat-and-mouse game, but the story (by Mann, Ann Biderman, and Ronan Bennett, adapted from Bryan Burrough's nonfiction book) is too blocky for sustained dramatic tension, and Bale, as with other seemingly essential supporting players, drops in and out of the action erratically. The title's pluralization aside, this is Dillinger's show and Depp's, and the actor does some cheeky, exhilarating work when he is all cockiness and resolve, as with the first on-camera heist, scored brilliantly to bluesman Otis Taylor's kicky "Ten Million Slaves" (though it should be said that the film's sound mix awkwardly foregrounds music and artillery, giving short shrift to dialogue) and later in a bravura sequence that charts a captured Dillinger's nighttime transfer to an Indiana jail, then to a holding pen, which he shanghais for an impromptu press conference, and ends in a jailbreak that is simply and thrillingly rendered. Mann doesn't consistently plot the action so cleanly; a DV convert, the director sometimes sacrifices spatial awareness for a you-are-here nearness and lurch. (One scene using handheld camerawork has the up-and-down hum of a moving passenger car.) The DV format also allows Mann to digitally tweak Public Enemies' color composition to stunning effect – moody grays, blinding bursts of an old-time camera flash, a diseased-looking, late-afternoon yellow at a Miami horse track. Mann doesn't manipulate color just to stylistically wank off: The beautiful but sickly off-shade of sunlight waning has everything to do with the emotional key of the scene, in which Dillinger tries to assure his girlfriend that, well, he's going to live forever. It's a crucial moment in the film's trajectory, but Depp doesn't sell it; the emotional depth and heft it requires come off tinny and inauthentic. Which is a shame, because Depp has a marvelous foil in Marion Cotillard, a French actress who won an Oscar for her high-wire portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. As Dillinger's girlfriend Billie Frechette – a former res-kid, now coat-check girl – Cotillard doesn't look part Native American or sound like a Thirties Chicago moll, but damned if she isn't a sight and sound to behold. Whatever her technical limitations, she rises above them to breathe a flesh and blood and battered-woman verisimilitude into the part. You can't tear your eyes off her any more than you can Mann's flawed but still engrossing picture.