Michael Mann's Public Enemies is a handsome but underwhelming gangster film covering John Dillinger's crime spree from his parole from prison on May 10, 1933, to his death 14 months later, on July 22, 1934. The two hours and 20 minutes long movie is visually impressive and more rudimentary than I expected. Parallels between the '30s and recent times are noted, but not pursued. The battles between Dillinger and the authorities are so repetitive that they play like a high-budget version of an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. We all know when and how Dillinger gets taken down, leaving us to watch the robberies, gunfights, captures and escapes in-between with hopes of feeling something more than a sense of inevitability. There is little insight or character shading to be had. Instead, we just stare as "They fight, and bite, and fight and bite and fight. Fight, fight, fight. Bite, bite, bite."
That may be overly flippant, but how frustrating it is to watch a story with such potential handled with a standard-issue mix of romanticism and brutality. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger as a charismatic thug with a wry smile and an "I want everything, now" philosophy. He's a folk hero to many people and is highly conscious of that fact. He's fiercely loyal. He's brazen. Sounds interesting, right? Unfortunately, I just told you about as much about Dillinger as Mann does in the whole movie. Depp's performance is serviceable, but lacks the flair he generally exhibits.
Marion Cotillard is engaging as a hatcheck girl swept off her feet by Dillinger and the lure of a life less ordinary. As for the rest of the cast, each is assigned a trait or two and set on their paths. Christian Bale, as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, seethes and acts driven, like a more erudite version of the character he played in the recent Terminator flick. I'm tired of him. I could describe the various other lawmen, but alas, Purvis is the most fully realized of the lot. As for the other criminals, they blur together, save for a couple of well-known characters that play like guest-villains on the '60s Batman TV series.
I had my eyes peeled for a few actors I admire in the supporting cast - Giovanni Ribisi (Phoebe's brother on Friends), Shawn Hatosy (Southland), Casey Siemaszko (Bill Forsyth's Breaking In and latter-year NYPD Blue) and Leelee Sobieski ( Deep Impact) - but most only had bit parts and I couldn't spot Siemaszko at all.
The notion of some members of the public treating Dillinger and other celebrity bank robbers as folk heroes because of their deep anger at Depression era financial institutions is relevant to today's economic mess, but Mann elects not to elaborate on it. The debate on whether it is acceptable to act like criminals in order to fight criminals also arises, but nothing much comes of it. That goes for the film in general, I suppose. Public Enemies isn't a bad movie. It's ordinary. And all the impressive cinematography, editing and art direction can't make up for the fact that Michael Mann is romanticizing a subject that has already been romanticized to death.