Michael Mann's 2009 crime thriller Public Enemies tells the story of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger -- in the most brooding and serious terms possible. You might think that a movie about one of the most beloved badasses in criminal history would be all about explosiveness and fun. But, then again, you'd probably think the same thing about a movie adaptation of Miami Vice. Exuberance just isn't Mann's style, and for people who want a little payoff or satisfaction in their two and a half hours of plodding, teeth-grinding intensity, that will be a problem. But for people who loved Heat, this is a tour de force.
Johnny Depp stars as Dillinger, whom we first meet as he's leading a violent nine-man escape from Indiana State Prison. He and his gang soon get down to work robbing banks, relying on a complex network of syndicate cooperation and one-step-ahead criminal smarts to stay out of jail. They fill their off-hours with swanky Chicago parties, which is how Dillinger meets a dark-haired minx named Billie (played by Marion Cotillard, whose usual high-caliber acting chops are occasionally belied by her extremely inconsistent accent), and falls immediately in love. Sadly, we know that their romance is probably of the doomed variety, as Dillinger -- despite becoming a celebrity for the anti-heroic times -- is the most wanted man in America, and J. Edgar Hoover (played with a rapid-fire, old-timey accent and impressive fat-face by Billy Crudup) has created an entire federal task force devoted to his capture, led by stand-up Southern gentleman Melvin Purvis (played with even greater solemnity than usual by Christian Bale).
The real-life Dillinger was a full-on rock star in the desperate 1930s, when people were ecstatic to see someone bilk the institutions that had let so many down. Depp's performance as the swaggering folk hero offers a lot of nuance in this regard, depicting the renegade as a natural celebrity, effortlessly charismatic and smirkingly self-aware. Dillinger was, after all, known to have peppered his stick-ups with biting quips and counter-jumping acrobatics that he copied from the movies. And yet, it stays clear in Depp's portrayal that he's an authentic outlaw, a reasonably skilled and certainly accomplished gangster, not just some Bonnie and Clyde-type newsreel cad -- all buzz with no rap sheet to back it up.
There are plenty of scenes devoted to what would generally be considered gangster-movie badassery, stuff like police shoot-outs conducted largely with machine guns and bank heists featuring Depp in a fedora and overcoat, wielding two hand cannons. But while these moments are impressive, and even sometimes awesome, like everything else in Public Enemies, they're also often joyless. Mann just isn't interested in celebration; almost everything is deliberate and grinding -- an idea of realism that never builds toward triumph, or even tragedy. If movies like Collateral and The Insider are anything to go by, it would seem pretty clear that Mann just prefers tension to excitement, and Public Enemies proves once again that he can create beautiful cinema out of this perspective. But for audiences who can't bring themselves to share his rather sedate vision, beauty might not be enough.