To become rich and famous in the depression '30s, a fellow could make movies, play baseball or rob banks. John Dillinger chose Way 3, and for a while he enjoyed the celebrity of a Clark Gable or a Lou Gehrig. Newspapers breathlessly limned his exploits as he made sizable withdrawals from vaults throughout the Midwest, using his machine gun as collateral. But killing cops puts a man at greater risk than hitting a homer or kissing the girl. Dillinger stirred the hunter's blood in J. Edgar Hoover, the young director of the FBI, and Hoover's most resourceful agent, Melvin Purvis. They, and Dillinger too, knew that a life of crime was not a profession from which one gracefully retired. Purvis and his team caught up with their public enemy as he emerged from a theater showing a Gable gangster film. The real-life tough guy was 31 when he died on that Chicago street.
Dillinger gets the genial touch of Johnny Depp's star quality in Public Enemies, the gigantic, meticulous but finally perfunctory new biopic from director and co-writer Michael Mann. There's not a soupçon of psychopathy in this Dillinger; rather, he's a smart, charming, efficient entrepreneur whose career would've lasted much longer if he hadn't been surrounded by klutzes, sharks and a betrayer from a brothel.
The movie tips its veneration of Dillinger in an early heist scene when, as he vaults over a bank partition, the camera goes briefly into slo-mo; it's like Leni Riefenstahl filming the Olympics of bank-robbing. Depp's John is nice to the ladies, especially the FrancoNative American Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and quick with the quips as in his one brief face-to-face with Purvis (Christian Bale): "What keeps you up nights, Mr. Dillinger?" "Coffee."
You won't need caffeine to keep up with this energetic if wall-eyed movie, which switches between Dillinger's exploits and the efforts of Hoover (Billy Crudup) and Purvis to track him down. The bureau, still in its infancy, was initially hamstrung by Hoover's insistence that his agents be stouthearted men, not wily, patient predators. Incompetence caused the bungling of more than one stakeout. Some agents also made use of what the bureau called "vigorous physical interviews" torture during questioning as if Billie were an al-Qaeda suspect at Guantánamo. (The one gasp from a preview audience exploded when Billie got viciously slapped by an FBI agent.)
The nonfiction book by Bryan Burrough that inspired the movie is a panorama of G-men and gunmen: Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, the whole colorful rogues' gallery. The movie concentrates on Dillinger, known as Public Enemy No. 1, so the plural in the title suggests that not just he but also Hoover was a national menace. Dillinger is seen as an independent businessman being squeezed by two ruthless cartels: Frank Nitti's gang and Hoover's FBI the Chicago Mob and the wrong arm of the law.
Mann, from his debut feature film, Thief, through those exemplary TV series Miami Vice and Crime Story to his cop-and-crook, cat-and-mouse Heat with Pacino and De Niro, has fashioned a body of work that puts him up there with Martin Scorsese as American entertainment's definitive chronicler of the underworld. This project promised to be the crowning achievement of a Chicago kid steeped in the lore and chivalric code of the bad guy. And moment by moment, it delivers details that seem true to the time like the bank-robbery hostages mounted on the getaway car's running boards to discourage fire from lawmen in pursuit and the numbing hours Purvis and his men must put in, waiting for a malefactor to emerge from his hideout.
But all this docudrama grit allows for precious little dramatic juice. Given that Dillinger's death was the most famous kill in FBI history, there can be no coil of suspense in this story; its ending is as predictable as a Passion play's. The vitality has to come from whatever fresh insights Mann can find in Dillinger's Stations of the Cross. And these are lacking. Few sparks are struck in the love story; Cotillard, last year's Oscar winner for La Vie en Rose, makes a tepid bedmate for the always sexy Depp. Mostly the film displays gangsters doing their thing and brutal law-enforcement officers doing theirs. As played by Bale, the heroic Purvis is so steely and tightly wound, he's less a human being than a weapon his eyes the gun sight, his terse words the bullets.
Shot and projected digitally instead of on film, the picture gains in gradations of night shades but loses in visual clarity. Some shots look like iPhone photos enlarged to 50 feet; any sharp camera movement results in a blur. The same has to be said for the movie. It lacks overall focus, and at the end you may have a question for Michael Mann: Why'd you bother?