Some Johnny Depp roles are indelibly his. It's hard to imagine another actor playing Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates" franchise, or Edward Scissorhands, or even Donnie Brasco.
Not so with Depp's portrayal of John Dillinger in Michael Mann's good-but-never masterful "Public Enemies." Don't get me wrong----Depp is strong here. Solid. In command. It's just a curiously muted performance, only occasionally punctured by bursts of violent energy or wry touches. Even with a running time of two hours and 10 minutes, "Public Enemies" never tries to delve into the inner Dillinger. We get precious few details about his past or what makes him tick. He openly acknowledges he has no plan for the future, no thoughts beyond the next heist. He robs banks because...he's good at it? He hates the system? That's where the money is? Your guess is as good as mine.
This film is set smack dab in the middle of the Depression, but we don't get the sense Dillinger thinks of himself as any kind of a Robin Hood----even though the people seem to think of him that way, lining the streets to cheer for him as if he's a presidential candidate when the police bring him in. Depp's Dillinger is a loyal friend and a romantic----but he'll also cut off anyone who goes against his plan. One guy who screws up during a prison break is thrown out of the car and left to die like a wounded animal. Dillinger never even looks back.
Mann and his first-rate production team meticulously re-create the streets of 1933 Chicago (other scenes were shot in Indiana and Wisconsin), and while some liberties are taken with the history, this is a mostly faithful retelling of the Dillinger legend. The infamous photo of Dillinger laughing it up with cops and prosecutors in Indiana, the jail break with the fake gun, the fact that "The Woman in Red" wasn't actually wearing red on that fateful night outside the Biograph----all of that is brought to light here.
In one of the most riveting sequences, Dillinger brazenly walks into the headquarters of the special Dillinger squad and walks around quietly as a ballgame plays in the background. He studies the charts detailing his bank jobs, he looks at photos of his friends who have been gunned down, he even has a brief exchange with one cop. By some reports, this actually happened. Even if it didn't, it should have.
Great little moments like that are few and far between in this film. "Public Enemies" is more interested in good old-fashioned gangsterism. As always, Mann is the master of the extended, beautifully choreographed shootout sequence. (The climactic bank robbery in Mann's 1995 classic "Heat" remains the standard for all filmmakers.) We get a number of such scenes here, with the Depression-era machine guns and pistols sounding louder than anti-tank artillery, and the bodies piling up as Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and other infamous criminals of the day gun it out in broad daylight with local cops and the feds.
Christian Bale gives a suitably intense performance as the straight-arrow G-man Melvin Purvis, who grows tired of J. Edgar Hoover's methodology and enlists the help of some near-mercenary lawmen to bring down Dillinger. (A beefed-up Billy Crudup, his face squared off, is a standout as Hoover.) Marion Cotillard, beautiful and touching but struggling somewhat with her English, is the girl Dillinger loves. We get a number of outstanding supporting performances, most notably Stephen Graham as "Baby Face" Nelson and Peter Gerety as Dillinger's brilliant and hilarious showboat of an attorney. Special kudos also to Stephen Lang as a lawman who has a surprisingly human exchange with Dillinger's girlfriend after Dillinger has been felled.
The HD photography gives the nighttime sequences a rich texture---but it also lacks the richness and the dreamlike quality of film. In a few closeups, the detail is distracting. We can actually see the makeup on Depp's face.
There is much to be admired here. I don't want to short-sell the pluses, which far outweigh my twinge of mild disappointment that "Public Enemies" isn't in the same league as Mann films such as "Heat," "Thief" and "Collateral." I just expected something truly special from Mann and Depp.
Sometimes the greats get together and make a film that's merely good.