Movie Review: 'Public Enemies' With Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp stars as famed bank robber John Dillinger in this crime drama from director Michael Mann. Video by Universal Pictures
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's tough to watch Johnny Depp these days when he's not wearing eyeliner, a do-rag and a monkey on his shoulder. After gooping up "Finding Neverland," glowering vacantly through "Sweeney Todd" and annihilating every sprinkle of dignity in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," how can he be trusted with another larger-than-life character defined by a complicated past?

Depp dials down his weirdness to play gangster John Dillinger and, ironically, this choice sinks the movie. "Public Enemies," despite packing thunderous rounds of ammunition, is a touch too remote. There are no big speeches, no drawn-out death scenes, no gauzy flashbacks. It's a straight-faced, no-nonsense, shoot-'em-up, jailbreak, cat-and-mouse kind of movie.

It's also a double-barreled bummer. There's no excitement in the bank-robbing, no thrill of the chase, no emotion over justice served or thwarted. Depp's Dillinger is neither charming nor despicable, nor does he occupy that delicious gray area between the two. His spree unspools dispassionately, cold as a Colt .380.

Forget feelings for a second. "Public Enemies" looks great. It has that pristine Michael Mann sheen. Colors are crisp. Every shot has a twilighty varnish. Dapper men in dark suits wage war in the marbled halls of capitalism. They lope like wolves into banks, snatch fistfuls of money and retire to honey-hued cabarets to spend their loot, living large in the face of the Great Depression.

Under the stewardship of a prideful J. Edgar Hoover (played by an awkward Billy Crudup, who seems to act mostly with jowls he doesn't have), the FBI strikes back at Dillinger and his peers, first impotently, then savagely. Leading the manhunt is a rigid, stone-faced agent named Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale with an introversion even more pathological than Bruce Wayne's.

The movie is a tussle of dark suits and fedoras, with packs of trigger-happy men perforating the dickens out of the Midwest under a Hoover-mandated "national war on crime." Director Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti keep the camera at the shoulders of the actors, holding the action in tight close-ups, rarely stepping back for a wider look. "Public Enemies" feels narrow, not panoramic. It lacks the mustiness of a period piece. It's definitely not a history lesson in disguise.

Stylistically, this is a refreshing approach. The last thing we need is another cookie-cutter biopic, and Dillinger's back story (tough childhood, etc.) is concisely consigned to one line of dialogue. The problem is casting. Depp and Bale, each capable of intense brooding, blow each other's circuits. There's no electricity to the rivalry because it's impossible to get a read on either man.

Mann's previous movies about boys and their guns were all very cool, but still warm to the touch. "Heat," despite its machismo, was opera. "Collateral" crackled along on the dynamic between its lead actors. The 2006 "Miami Vice," despite what the haters say, was charged with an electric moodiness. Compared with them, "Public Enemies" is practically soulless. It's procedural. It's also an aural spanking. The headache peaks about three-quarters of the way through, as the rat-a-tatting starts to bury any whisper of story.

The movie's faint pulse comes from French actress Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), who plays Dillinger's girlfriend, Billie Frechette, a coat-check girl whose life changes forever when she agrees to an impromptu date. Cotillard has a particularly affecting scene in which she is brutally interrogated by overzealous agents. It's here that "Public Enemies" gets closest to a theme that resounds in the heart and the head.

As seen through Billie's working-class eyes, the great crime wave of the early '30s was less about a grand game of cat vs. mouse than about the collateral incurred during such a game. The high-octane misadventures of Dillinger and his peers captured the attention of a doldrummy nation, but they also shattered the lives of innocent bystanders who were pulled into complicity and punished for it, gunned down accidentally or, in Billie's case, wrecked emotionally.

Cotillard is a tightly wound bundle of nerves in a movie that is otherwise unfeeling. Opposite her, Depp's brand of brooding wilts. She's clearly taken with him -- and has to be, for the movie -- but Depp coasts solely on his pout, his dark brown eyes and his relentless inscrutability.

The story reaches its inevitable end outside the Biograph Theater, where Purvis and his agents position themselves for an ambush. There's nothing to feel once Dillinger hits the pavement, but "Public Enemies" almost rights itself by checking in with Billie before the credits roll. If the fire in Cotillard's eyes in this final scene had been matched by Depp and Bale throughout, "Public Enemies" might've really popped. Instead, despite all the fireworks, its chamber is empty. For 2 hours 20 minutes, it simply goes click, click, click.

Public Enemies (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for gangster violence and some objectionable language.

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