On paper, this
movie has it all. A credit crunch-defying story about renegades sticking it to the money men. A mouth-watering A-list face-off between two of the coolest bastards on the planet. A director who couldn't direct a shitty shoot-out if Michael Bay had him at gun-point. Why, then, does it feel so lacking? Despite all the above and more, Public Enemies never really grips on the level it deserves to - with this and Miami Vice
both failing to live up to their huge potential, it's looking more and more like Michael Mann will never be able to recapture that Heat hotness.
Balls-deep in a recession as we are, the plot couldn't be more timely. We're taken back to 1930s America, where criminals brought a dangerous glamour to the Great Depression. Serial robber and professional charmer John Dillinger (Depp) is fast climbing up the Most Wanted list, forcing J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) to get his best man on the case. Fledgling FBI agent Melvyn Purvis (Bale) takes on the task of bringing Dillinger to justice, by tracking his gang - comprised of colourful characters like Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby-Face Nelson (Graham) - and by squeezing his new squeeze, Billie (Cotillard).
Part of the problem of having two big names on opposing sides of the law is that, save for a brief exchange through prison bars and a last reel meet and greet, neither cop or crook get to share the screen (see also: American Gangster
). What's left is an unbalanced affair, in which Depp's Dillinger chews on the meat and potatoes of the movie, while Bale mops up the gravy. They may share a similar amount of screen time, but the impetus is always with Dillinger - Purvis can only play catch-up.
It's clear where Mann's allegiances lie, too. Dillinger is painted as a modern day Robin Hood, who robs from the rich and... um, keeps it. ("Put your money away," he tells one frightened clerk. "It's the bank's money we want". See also: Heat). Depp plays Dillinger as debonair man of the people, joking with the press upon one of his many arrests and schmoozing with society's elite. Mann's intention seems to be to inform us that the '30s created a better class of crook - Dillinger is the civilised criminal, it's the world that's gone bad.
A character so complex he almost drove an obsessive Hoover to an early grave, Dillinger shouldn't need the love interest that Mann supplies to give him motivation. Cotillard gives good moll as the coat-checker lured into John's glam gangster entourage, but for a man who wants "everything, right now", their relationship doesn't convince enough for him to throw in the towel. Those doe eyes don't flutter when you're dead.
Depp, it must be said, is fantastic - with chiselled cheek-bones and a crooked smile, he was born to be a gangster. With that tried-and-tested Jack Sparrow swagger straightened out, he fulfils Mann's mandate to make Dillinger the anti-hero of the piece. Depp plays him as a dead man walking, for whom the end is just another adventure. His Dillinger frequently hides in plain sight, strolling casually past his pursuers and even infiltrating their number. One fantastic scene sees Dillinger sitting in a cinema when his wanted poster is projected 20ft high on the screen. The lights come up. "Look to your left," instructs the announcer. "Now, look to your right." Dillinger, eyes dead ahead at all times, remains undetected and cracks a wry smile. Talk about an untouchable.
But therein lies the rub. Bale's Feds, try though they might, can't get near Dillinger and his gang: he's in a different league in every respect. Purvis is a stoic character with little dynamism, no spark - it's cliché, but you never sense he and Dillinger are two halves of the same coin. Bale is solid, more low-key than he has been for a while (that giant anger vein under his eye still distracts) but Mann's script never lets Purvis' personal life overcome his professionalism - apart from one scene where he interrupts a rather savage beating, you never see the man behind the machine gun. Even the hardened criminal cracks once.
Mann's screenplay gives Bale a short shrift, damning him to the thankless role of pursuer. There's a basic repetition of formula which sees Dillinger pull a heist, hide out, get caught, escape, ad infinitum. Public Enemies features two jailbreaks, two bank robberies, two shoot-outs. It's far from boring, but you do get the sense it was difficult to colour the life and times of a man who only did what he wanted - and what he wanted was to rob banks, over and over.
Good thing Mann knows his action onions. As in Miami Vice, gun-fights are visceral, intense and thrilling... but few and far between. The high point is the Feds' breathtaking ambush on Dillinger's forest hideout - millions of bullets tear through wood, metal and stone, making a fearsome racket and creating a very real sense of danger: it'll pin you to your seat. Alas, this high tempo cannot be maintained - Dillinger is soon back on the run, Purvis left cursing his men's incompetence.
When in its groove, Public Enemies is hugely enjoyable. Depp has fantastic support, particularly from Stephen Graham as the psychotic Baby-Face, and his exploits are directed with just the sort of wild verve you'd expect from the director of Heat. With a little more work on Purvis' arc and a bit more variety in the script, Public Enemies could have been worthy of touching the hem of that particular masterpiece. As it is, it's little more than the sum of its parts; not a bad film by any means, but certainly not the classic it should be.