For an initial stretch of Michael Mann's Public Enemies, bankable antihero Johnny Depp seems like just the right fit for John Dillinger's trench coat and tommy gun. He is convincingly able to take any bank, win any woman and elude authorities at every turn.
Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is the expected unstoppable force that Depp's Depression-era gangster meets time and again. Purvis has been shoved into duty by an ambitious J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), because what better way to get a 'Federalâ?� in front of that Bureau of Investigation than to nab the country's public enemy No. 1?
And let's not forget the dame, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a darling coat-check girl who doesn't let a pesky thing like her beloved's fugitive status get in the way of their big plans. Her presence in the swinging-dick scheme of things helps Mann round out his greatest-hits stew: the cop-criminal dichotomy of Heat and Manhunter crossed with the tough-facts romance of Thief, all cast in the digital hue of 2006's Miami Vice. It's a format that parallels the film's own knack for varying from moments of crisp insight to scenes left a frantic blur or all too stagy.
When Dillinger makes his way through a crowded nightclub as the only real face in a crowd, or when he makes his way out of jail with a fake gun and some good friends, the imagery couldn't be more immediate and visceral. At other points, as is the case during an exciting rural shootout and pursuit, the camera brings not only the look but the very air of glorified re-enactment to the proceedings. (Then again, most re-enactments don't boast a score by Elliot Goldenthal, so that's a plus.)
Amid all the flashbulbs and muzzle flare, Depp finally acts less like the cocksure movie star of his time and more like the criminal who wanted to be a star but settled for perpetual infamy. He is utterly believable as a man arrogant enough to stroll right into police headquarters and ask how the Cubs are doing, yet vulnerable enough to consider blowing away every Fed on the street to get to his girl. If only in the figurative sense, Depp does blow away Bale, whose blandly determined performance and underwritten role makes him a regretfully flat foil.
It's a pity that Mann is initially more fascinated with a public enemy instead of his private thoughts, because Depp mines the standard cat-and-mouse dynamic for a deeper sense of what life must be like for a mouse whose maze leads to a dead end. Public Enemies is a lesson in how watching a man in front of the camera hit his mark can make one wish the man behind the camera had such true aim.