Johnny Depp makes a great bank robber--but the movie he's in doesn't say much about John Dillinger
The scene is a cliché: John Dillinger comes to sweep a coat check girl off her feet and into his freewheeling life of crime. She demurs, claiming she doesn't know enough about him. He responds with a terse hard-knock story about his mother dying when he was young, his father beating him because that was the only way he knew how to raise a kid, and then delivers the kicker: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else do you need to know?"
According to Michael Mann's Public Enemies, such is how Dillinger picks up Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), the woman that would be the moll to his stylish muscle. It's a snappy line, branding Dillinger as a suave renegade who is into the outlaw swagger that comes with being a bank robber in Depression-ridden 1930s America, when criminals were accorded a sense of celebrity for living outside polite society (see also: Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker, Al Capone, and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow). Of course, in Enemies it helps that Dillinger is played by actual movie star Johnny Depp, who in his late 40s looks better than Dillinger ever did in any of the pictures taken of him during his 31 years. And that's the biggest problem with Mann's movie: it's a seductive surface that has little to nothing behind it.
Such stylized glamour wouldn't be such a thorny problem coming from almost any other director, but Mann's crime flicks always feel like something more than mere crime flicks. Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, even his Miami Vice update--all feature Mann's precise handling of the methodical processes of committing and investigating crimes, which he uses to explore what kinds of men do these things. He creates crime movies as psychological essays, trying to figure out what drives William Petersen's criminal profiler in Manhunter or Robert de Niro's Neal McCauley in Heat. These are men who distance themselves from people and sometimes their families in order to do something they're very good at and, if truth be told, something they enjoy doing, no matter how dangerous it is or what it does to them mentally and physically. They're men who almost appear to be more relaxed when chasing down homicidal lunatics or navigating an urban firefight. They know how to act and react in those situations; it's the mundane vertigo of everyday life where they feel most unbalanced.
And it's a psychological edge missing entirely from Public Enemies. Based in part on Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, the movie covers barely nine months in Dillinger's life over its 140 minutes, opening with his October 1933 escape from Indiana State Prison and ending with his shooting death outside Chicago's Biograph Theater in July 1934. In between, Mann does flirt with bigger themes: J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup with a hard-core bureaucratic clip in his voice and a fire hydrant for a neck) consolidates the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a national police force to launch a "War on crime;" shining-star G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) finding it harder and harder to live with himself in order to do the things he has to do to catch the criminals he has to catch; organized crime expanding into a coast-to-coast operation instead of mere local numbers rackets and bookies; the role of radio and newsreels in creating the national myths of the era's folk-hero criminals; shooting a 1930s-set gangster picture with in-close, hand-held intimacy on what looks like digital video.
But if Mann has anything to say about these ideas, he keeps them close to his chest. Instead, Enemies moves through a story familiar to anybody who knows Dillinger's life--bank robberies, serendipitously getting nabbed in Tucson, daringly breaking out of prison again in Indiana, getting into a gunfight with the feds in Wisconsin following a job with Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), going on the run and eventually getting gunned down himself in Chicago. Throughout, Mann's flair for arresting realism remains thrilling: Tommy-gun muzzle flares and large-caliber rifle rounds have never looked or felt as visceral in 1930s-set gangster movies and, naturally, the bank robbery scenes are shot with a tight eye for detail. Missing is any reason to be that interested in this man and his story--save Depp's beguiling presence. Jaunty, cavalier, and vicious when he needs to be, Depp plays Dillinger as a guy as cunning as he was overconfident--for a different take, revisit Warren Oates' dastardly version in John Milius' 1973 Dillinger--but it's a performance that feels wholly formed by the actor and not the role. Depp makes a great 1930s bank robber in nice clothes, fast cars, and with the saucy Cotillard on his arm. But as to why that makes this Dillinger worth watching for 2 hours and 20 minutes, Public Enemies doesn't say.