In Theaters: Public Enemies
For an artist as history-obsessed as Michael Mann, it's a wonder he's made only three period films in 30 years. It's even more surprising how wildly their quality swings, from the dynamic, violent romance of The Last of the Mohicans to the paper-thin biopic Ali to this week's middling Public Enemies. Mann's style may remain consistent throughout, offering his same moody riff on a classic American folk tale. But what happens when the filmmaker's even more preoccupying theme -- crime, and the men who practice it -- has its own stake in Enemies' John Dillinger myth? A schizoid mess, that's what.
In Thief, Heat and even the mixed bag Collateral, Mann made great drama out of his guided tours through the criminal mind. Anti-heroic as they were, each wanted something the viewer sought as well; their discipline made them sympathetic. Building outward from Vanity Fair journalist Bryan Burrough's acclaimed source material, Enemies expects a similar result through wholly different means: The violent bank robber Dillinger (Johnny Depp, brooding exquisitely) earns his legend by standing up to the Great Depression. He breaks out of prison almost at will, eludes authority, leads his gang to any number of welcoming safehouses around the Midwest. His inner life won't charm anyone, but his soothing declamation that he's stealing from banks, not their customers, is disarming enough for a fascinated America.
It's almost enough for doe-eyed Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), whom Dillinger plucks from coat-check purgatory despite her independent streak and resistance to life on the lam. Cotillard glows as one of Mann's most well-drawn women in years, bristling at Dillinger's impunity, never so swept up in the glamour of crime that she can't foresee (and attempt to forestall) her lover's imminent incarceration and/or death.
She doesn't have to wait long for the former -- at least not with the officious FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his rising-star special agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) on Dillinger's trail. Finally breaking superhero character after a blockbuster year, Bale approaches his G-man with slow, painstaking revelation. This is the trait that makes Mann's lifers so compelling -- this stoic, sleepless, all-consuming quest that you know won't end, even when it does. (The real-life Purvis, in fact, did take his own life in 1960.) Dillinger and Purvis's only confrontation (more shades of Heat) crisply illustrates their contrast. Depp almost spits with entitlement, but it's the wrong kind, more akin to an actor knowing he's got another 80 pages to swagger than a hardened killer with a deadly allergy to the law. And true to both their histories, Mann stages another jailbreak with swift, punishing precision.
Mann stages much of the rest of Enemies the same way, peaking with the groups' infamous, extraordinary nighttime gun battle in the Wisconsin woods. But by then the narrative itself has lost so much blood that it can't keep up; Enemies lurches along episodically, with the filmmaker sketching the equivalent of a bold chalk outline around the story's warm corpse. It has its moments, though, including Frechette's shockingly brutal interrogation by an FBI goon and Dillinger's meta-moment inside the Biograph Theater, where, in Clark Gable's Manhattan Melodrama, he's just seen the movie of his life. Moments later on the streets of Chicago, he'll find his death.
Yet Mann largely forsakes more dramatic hits for detailed misses, made all the worse for his sludgy, dark, degraded high-definition video imagery. The dense shadows that the same technology beautifully explored in Collateral and Miami Vice wind up drowning cinematographer Dante Spinotti. And that's to say nothing of his extreme close-ups, the ugly yield of Depp's jaundiced scowling or Bale's pixelated pupils. I'm not sure what Mann was trying to accomplish with that ugly texture; perhaps that after the Civil War, anyhow, America's own inner life never looked worse than 1933? It's anyone's guess, really, but a shame at any rate. History -- both Mann's and our own -- deserves better. RATING: 6.5