John Herbert Dillinger was a notorious bank robber and gangster who, with his gang, terrorized the Midwest during the Depression. Even though he was a violent criminal, Dillinger was also known to be a charming and witty man who could be generous with “his” money. (Apparently he would buy tickets for children so they could go to the fair or to the movies.) Because of this, a number of Americans considered him to be a modern-day Robin Hood. Naturally, the Feds thought otherwise, and called him “Public Enemy No. 1.” Dillinger lived by the gun and died by one, too. He was just 31 years old when federal agents shot him to death in front of a movie house.
Considering his notoriety, you can imagine that Dillinger would be ambrosia for the Hollywood film factory. He’s no Al Capone, but he hasn’t done too badly for himself. He’s been the subject of at least eight films and made-for-TV shows. The first was “Dillinger” (1945). Despite the controversy surrounding it – religious and social groups objected to its “brutal and sensational” subject matter, and apparently the Chicago Censorship Board banned the film for two years – it received an Oscar nod. The latest effort is “Public Enemies,” which because its director is Michael Mann is undoubtedly poised for Oscar glory. The biopic chronicles a short chapter in Dillinger’s life, taking us from one bank robbery and jail bust to the next, ending with his showdown with the Feds. Along the way, we meet the members of his gang, including everyone from Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) to the unhinged Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham); the G-men who were trying to bring him down, especially J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale); and the half-American-Indian, half-French woman who captured his heart, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
Johnny Depp plays Dillinger with all the charm he can muster, but for some reason the film felt irrelevant to me. Why do we need another film about a by-gone criminal? Does it give us any insight into the mind of a criminal? No. Does it give us a sharper understanding of how “fighting crime” evolved during this era? Sort of, but how Hoover created the FBI was more of a throw away point in the film. Granted this wasn’t a documentary. I didn’t expect it to be. But if you are going to make yet another film about 1930s gangsters – and there are a LOT of them available on DVD and VHS – then add something to the conversation. Mann does not. In fact, “Public Enemies” simply continues Mann’s obsession with criminality. If you look over the director’s oeuvre, you see, over and over again, good guys trying to outfox the bad guys. It’s true in “Manhunter,” “Heat,” “Miami Vice,” and even “The Insider” and “Collateral.” He’s beginning to look a lot like a one-trick pony.
No doubt, a lot of time and energy was spent on recreating the 1930s look for this film – Colleen Atwood’s costumes were fantastic – so it’s a bit odd that Mann shot it, using a hi-def video. Rather than having the traditional sepia-toned, documentary look about it, the film has moments when everything in the frame is so sharp and clear that you feel as if you are watching late night TV. I found it all very distracting. What also disappointed me were the overall lackluster performances. Even Bale, who consistently wows me, left me unimpressed. Depp was essentially Depp. This role didn’t let him stretch any acting muscles. Cotillard had one moving moment at the end, but really her role could have been played by anyone. The only actor who seemed alive was Graham, but then he was playing a maniacal, machine gun firing gangster. In essence, “Public Enemies” is an overly long, rather tedious, missed opportunity for Mann to reinvent the gangster film.