A review of “Public Enemies” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: R for language, violence and adult themes

Run Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

 

 

It doesn’t get hotter – or more A-list – than Johnny Depp and Christian Bale burning up the screen in a ruthless and prickly Michael Mann epic.

But oh how mighty do fall. Mann’s abstract ode to Public Enemy Number One – the infamous John Dillinger – is a colossal misstep.

The story is a familiar one with little in the way of sizzle. Dillinger (Depp) is sprung from prison only to reclaim his reputation as the most notorious Depression-era bank robber of all time. Tired of the low blows to Windy City law enforcement J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) appoints somber FBI bloodhound Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) as Special Agent in charge of the Chicago Field Office with one goal in mind: take down Dillinger.

The FBI has its panties in a twist but the public is enthralled – their sympathies lying squarely with the handsome anti-hero toying with an institution many blame for their financial woes. Dillinger is a celebrity, a criminal bon vivant of the first rank.

And the man gets what he wants, including a doe-eyed coat-check girl (Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette) who rather unceremoniously becomes Dillinger’s moll because he says so.

My biggest gripe lies with Mann, who mixes movie metaphors like a mad scientist. Mob films need style and luster to match their kinetic posturing – the macho swagger, incessant shootouts, and vibrant blood and guts. Mann pulls a one-eighty and plays it like a disjointed fever dream; a bleak, tommy-gunned roundelay of jumpy cameras, ambient light and dull lulls punctuated by spasms of violence that lack characterization or control.

Much of the dialogue is maddeningly unintelligible, as is anything relating to a back-story. Give me some character study to chew on, or give me a roadmap. Emotionally muted doesn’t cut it when the stakes are this high.

Depp is complicit in this disappointment, playing it lazily loquacious rather than iconic and mumbling his way through cliché after cliché with none of his signature panache. Where’s the charisma, the sense of urgency? Ditto for Bale whose awkward accent and steely reserve is frosty and fidget-worthy.

          One or two scenes catch fire – most notably a theater piece in which Dillinger sits with a cheerfully oblivious picture-show crowd while a melodramatic Newsreel warns that he could be among them. Costumes are some of Colleen Atwood’s finest (yet subtlest) and the spit and polish of 1930s Midwest is evident in every frame.

I imagine there are some who will perceive this as nothing shy of genius – a breathlessly bold experiment at the hands of a master director. Unfortunately I will not be among them.