Hollywood has made so many 1930s-era gangster movies that the only excuse for a new one is novelty. Why else endure yet again all those rat-a-tat shootouts? Nostalgia has its limits.
Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, doesn't attempt to break new ground. It tills the old ground, albeit with new-style star power and Mann's signature cinematic flourishes. But Depp is unduly subdued and Mann's cape work is oversold.
Despite the famous bank robber's notoriety, only two "Dillinger" movies, one made in 1945 starring Lawrence Tierney, the other from 1973 with Warren Oates, have prominently featured him – and neither were wonderful. The hope was that Mann, known for squeezing every last drop of India ink out of his crime-world noirs ("Manhunter," "Heat," "Collateral"), would find a fresh way to either remythologize Dillinger or debunk his legend.
He's fallen hard for the mythology, skimping just about everything else that might bring Dillinger to life. You'd be hard-pressed to tell from this film, notwithstanding the occasional prettified hobo, that the country was mired in the Great Depression. Mann and coscreenwriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman have limned – i.e., watered down – the Dillinger material from Bryan Burrough's 2004 nonfiction book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34." Their real touchstone is old Hollywood crime films.
Mann's hero-worshipy treatment of Dillinger is undercut by the film's dreamtime existentialist aura. In reality, the working poor cheered Dillinger's bank raids but in "Public Enemies" the Depression is just a prop, and so Dillinger's populist hero status, what little we see of it, makes scant sense. (This is probably why we see so little of it.) Missing, as a result, is the knockabout tumult of a time when gangsters could ascend to the same stardom as the movie actors who played gangsters. Dillinger was, for a while, every bit as big as Jimmy Cagney. Mann pirouettes around the twin realities of the Depression and the star culture it engendered and offers instead a moody blues doominess. It's a vacuum filling a vacuum.
The people who made this movie are too smart not to realize they're trafficking in clichés. But they've outsmarted themselves. When, for example, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), Chicago hatcheck girl-turned-Dillinger dearie, says to him, "I don't want to be around when you're dead," we're meant to regard the line as so hackneyed it's iconic. But a burnished cliché is still a cliché.
I wasn't surprised by this movie's arrant romantic streak – Mann has always been big on glorioso gangsterism. He gets all elegiac about how organized crime pushed out independent operators like Dillinger, as if we were talking about mom and pop stores and not vicious killers. But I was amazed at how, in propping up Dillinger as the People's Choice, he simplistically stacks the deck. The newly invented FBI, as personified by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), comes across as a repository of monomaniacal psychos. (In the film's most egregious moment, Mann deliberately invokes Abu Ghraib in a sequence where a rogue lawman tortures Billie.) Was Mann afraid that Dillinger's vaunted folk mythology wouldn't hold up to scrutiny unless his adversaries were wackos?
Virtually all crime movies engage in mythmaking, including many of the best, such as "The Godfather" and "Bonnie and Clyde." But Francis Ford Coppola's classic was ultimately about the corruption of the American dream and it had a novelistic richness. "Bonnie and Clyde" gave us an entirely new and startling take on violence.
"Public Enemies," for all its ambition, is basically about dark shadows and photogenic faces. It's about the iconography of Johnny Depp's fine-drawn features. But utilizing Depp, a great and charismatic actor, as a species of décor is a waste.
This being a Michael Mann movie, there are some virtuoso set pieces, especially the extended nighttime FBI raid on Dillinger at Wisconsin's remote Little Bohemia lodge, and there are choice supporting players – Stephen Lang's Texas cop being a standout. He brings some hard-worn grit to the proceedings.
"Public Enemies" could have used a lot more grit. Without it, we're left with a crime movie fantasia that slips all too easily into the ether. Grade: B- (Rated R for gangster violence and some language.)