starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup
screenplay by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman
directed by Michael Mann
by Walter Chaw It's possible that Johnny Depp in a zoot suit, firing a Tommy gun from the running board of a vintage Ford, is so distractingly perfect an image that all other considerations are shunted to the soft shoulder--possible for the audience to only realize afterwards that there was nothing much of substance revealed about John Dillinger in Michael Mann's gorgeous Public Enemies. (Possible for Mann, too, who in the process of creating another of his odes to masculinity and bloodshed, accidentally crafted this pedestal upon which to worship the cult of iconic stardom.) Maybe no accident at all, as the movie closest to this one is Terrence Malick's Badlands--right down to a scene amongst law-enforcement officials in which our Johnny is treated like a Hollywood demiurge of a street-thug bank robber. And if Mann is trying to craft a film along similarly fetishistic, Americana-informed lines, then the media is the massage as they say. Aside from that, somewhere down the road from today, we may look back and wonder about the sudden proliferation late in this decade of films centred on Robin Hoods literal and allegorical, robbing from a broken system of fiscal governance to give to (or, at least, not directly take from) the common guy. From our current vantage, though, what we see is the biggest movie star on the planet playing the most famous and admired "public enemy" of the outlaw era, 1931-1935 edition. While there are intimations now and again of darker contextual rumblings, they don't feel convicted; and in the end, there's left just a collection of beautiful pictures as inert as a coffee-table book.
In any case, there hasn't been a well-developed woman in a Mann film since Joan Allen's poor little blind girl in Manhunter, and true to form, Billie is made the cipher who begs her fella not to pursue the course that will lead to his ruin--although we know it's that aura of insuperable testosterone that's drawn him to her in the first place. It's a shame, because Cotillard seems capable of a great many things more complex than mourning her man in prison greys. The potential of a Mann-directed film with a testosterone-fired female is there in the flash of defiance in Cotillard's eye as Billie rallies from a brutal interrogation sequence. (More's the film's failure of perspective, then, when she needs a white knight in Purvis to deliver her from her torment.) There really aren't enough like moments in Public Enemies--the only other might be an extended shootout that ends with the assassination of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), and it doesn't go unnoticed that neither sequence features Bale's Purvis prominently. Technically, the picture's a marvel, its thundering gunfire providing visceral counterpoint to Mann's usual tonal control. Indeed, there's a lot to love about Public Enemies, just not much to chew over once it's finished and, unlike other Manns (Heat, or, hell, Ali), there's no one set-piece that justifies the rest of the time it spends admiring itself like the proverbial weightlifter in a gym's mirror. It's handsome, but, unlike most of Mann's other work, it doesn't mean a thing to me. Originally published: July 1, 2009.