*Public Enemies (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
On the last night of his life, John Dillinger went to the movies. It was the summer of 1934, and Dillinger had enjoyed a prosperous several months as America's Public Enemy No. 1 — the first, that is, but also the most important — and the raison d'être for our nascent FBI.
In the summer of 1934, with the Great Depression lingering, you generally went to the movies to forget your troubles. Sometimes you'd sit through pre-show newsreels beseeching you to look around at your fellow moviegoers, to see if John Dillinger was among them, and to notify the authorities if so. Sometimes your fellow moviegoers would cheer at the mention of Dillinger's name.
Sometimes you'd see a film like Manhattan Melodrama, about two elegant men on opposite sides of the law, played by William Powell and Clark Gable — the latter on his way to the electric chair with the words "Die like you live: all of a sudden."
It was shortly after hearing those words that Dillinger stepped out into the Chicago night and was shot down by the feds, who'd been waiting for him. In Public Enemies, though, this doesn't happen all of a sudden. It requires nearly two and a half hours of setup.
That's not so bad, as it involves Johnny Depp withdrawing into the role of Dillinger, doing a long, coy take on the smooth criminal. It's almost as if Depp's testing his own appeal, which remains as strong as ever, and wondering how broken up we'll really be to see him take a bullet through one of those beautiful cheeks.
The setup also involves Dillinger's rival, Special Agent Melvin Purvis, being glimpsed through a quiet, coiled-up performance by Christian Bale. So no, this is not a history, but a fantasy, mostly having to do with the durable gangster-glamour of the movies.
Being a Michael Mann film, it will boil down to a vision of two elegant men on opposite sides of the law — often mumbling in the dark, with accomplished character actors flitting around them and seeming somehow underused. The vision can seem archetypal or hackneyed, depending on your taste for its crafty presentation. Mann likes gazing at the cop-criminal two-sided Janus face; we've seen it before in his show Crime Story, and in Manhunter, and in Heat. His way of directing lead actors seems increasingly to consist of telling them: Just be the icons you are.
Given the title Public Enemies, and the adaptation by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman from Bryan Burrough's 2004 book of the same name, you might reasonably have hoped for an ensemble piece. There are sightings of Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), plus, you know, That Other Guy, and What's-his-name, and Whoozit. The movie doesn't make it easy to keep them all straight. Maybe because No. 1 is, well, No. 1.
Dillinger to a bank president, at the vault's mouth: "You can be a dead hero or a live coward. Open it." Dillinger to a bank customer, moments later: "Put it away. I'm not here for your money. I'm here for the bank's money." Dillinger to his girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard): "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else you need to know?"
In the summer of 2009, with the great recession lingering, better this than a movie about Bernie Madoff.