It was the movies that killed John Dillinger -- Gangster No. 1 until he was gunned down outside a Chicago theater after taking in the pictures one hot night in 1934 -- and it was the movies that brought him back to life. More than once. But this time it's different. This time Michael Mann is in charge.
Win, lose or draw, Mann, director of "Heat," "Ali," "The Insider" and the current "Public Enemies," is inescapably one of the masters of modern American cinema. He's a restless soul, a striver, pushing his work toward dramatic intensity and the recapturing and recasting of reality.
Mann often wants to do traditional films but do them differently, do them better, enabling the audience to feel both the newness and the tradition. With "Public Enemies," he has made an impressive film of great formal skill, one that inescapably has a brooding dark-night-of-the-soul quality about it.
Simultaneously an art film and a crime film, Mann's latest work (he shares screenplay credit with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman) may not give you a ton to hang on to emotionally, but the beauty and skill of the filmmaking keep you tightly in its grasp.
"Public Enemies' " title, though taken from Bryan Burrough's history of Depression era crime, offers uncanny -- and deceptive -- echoes of one of the iconic gangster films of the period, William Wellman's "The Public Enemy," which starred an incandescent James Cagney as a hooligan so hard-boiled he shocked America by squeezing a grapefruit into girlfriend Mae Clarke's face.
But if Cagney is all exuberant, anarchic energy, Johnny Depp's Dillinger is just the opposite. There is a formal, almost existential quality about his fatalistic portrayal of the scourge of the Midwest, more "Le Samourai" than "White Heat," more Alain Delon cool than Cagney hot.
It's almost as if Depp, who lives in France, and his French costar Marion Cotillard have unconsciously collaborated with Mann to channel the spirit of the classic French gangster genre director Jean-Pierre Melville into these decidedly American proceedings.
A restrained performance like that only succeeds when it's given by an actor as intrinsically charismatic as Depp. His Dillinger can be as ruthless as the next guy and handy with a submachine gun when his bank robbery spree demands it, but what we end up admiring are his nerve, his style, his long gabardine overcoats (reminiscent of the long dusters worn by those other Midwestern movie outlaws, the James gang) and his hip, round sunglasses. This is star power acting with magnetism to spare.
The story Mann and company set out to tell is in part the traditional one of the doomed love of outsiders on the run and in part a newer, more socially aware interpretation of gangsterdom, the story of lone criminal wolves, in Mann's words, "being pressed on both sides by twin evolutionary forces -- on the one hand J. Edgar Hoover inventing the FBI, and on the other, organized crime evolving rapidly into a kind of corporate capitalism." We're a long way from "The Untouchables" here.
"Public Enemies" opens with one of the standards of the crime genre, the prison escape, with Dillinger, just released after nine years inside, returning to break his gang out of the Indiana State Penitentiary. It didn't happen quite that way, but that matters less than the vivid style in which masterful cinematographer Dante Spinotti has shot it.
Spinotti, working with Mann for the fifth time, combines intense close-ups with a polished, energetic style of shooting action that brings a fluidity to the film's bank robbery sequences. Spinotti's use of digital equipment, which creates, he says, "the ability to see into shadows," makes possible one of the film's several rat-a-tat set pieces, a nighttime shootout with government agents at the Little Bohemia lodge in northern Wisconsin.
Once he and this entourage are out of prison, Dillinger heads to the big city of Chicago, where he meets the beautiful Billie Frechette (Cotillard), a hat-check girl with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She is dubious of his attentions at first, but when he tells her he has a weakness for "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey and you," she is hooked.
Though even his criminal pals tell him that what they're doing won't last, Dillinger says he's too smart for the opposition. He reckons without the more modern and scientific nature of the other side, led by the fussy, obsessive J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his man on the ground in the Midwest, Melvin Purvis.
Efficiently played by Christian Bale, Purvis is an icy and implacable nemesis who keeps after Dillinger with the help of handpicked Texas lawmen like Charles Winstead (Mann veteran Stephen Lang at his best). Purvis may have doubts about Hoover's methods, but he knows he has time on his side, even if Dillinger does not.
Though any number of name actors, including Lili Taylor as a confident sheriff and Giovanni Ribisi as gangster Alvin Karpis, make appearances, what's unusual about "Public Enemies" is Mann's determination not to have any face be an ordinary one.
A full 15 people (led by Avy Kaufman and Bonnie Timmerman) are credited with casting work on the film, and every face that appears on screen, whether members of Purvis' grizzled Chicago squad or youthful G-men, are clearly hand-picked for individuality and impact.
Mann's attention to nominally small things, his insistence that every detail be authentic, including the clothes (Colleen Atwood is the costume designer) and the often historic locations (Nathan Crowley is production designer), lend a sense of rightness to the entire endeavor.
Just as potent, as always with Mann, is the eclectic musical landscape, which here includes, in addition to Elliot Goldenthal's score, Billie Holiday doing "Am I Blue," Diana Krall singing "Bye Bye Blackbird," blues by Blind Willie Johnson and Otis Taylor, and the Smithsonian Folkways recording of "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" sung by a group of Old Regular Baptists. Not your ordinary tunes.
One of the interesting side effects of this exceptional care is to make "Public Enemies" so real it seems to transcend its period and exist out of time. Though the Depression was a major factor in Dillinger's career, we don't see or feel it all that much. What we get instead is the sense of a man whose name has lasted until now for a reason and, if the movies have anything to say about it, will last longer still.
MPAA rating: R for gangster violence and some language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release