Review: Public Enemies

Michael Mann ambitiously tries to forge the historical, iconographic and cultural aspects of American gangsterdom in "Public Enemies," with results more admirable than electrifying. Centering on bank robber John Dillinger, the most publicized of the many Depression-era outlaws whose transgressions fostered the rise of the FBI, Hollywood's specialist in great-looking crime stories has put images on the screen that are compelling to watch even though the overall impact is muted. Oddly, too, the film is somewhat shortchanged by its great star, Johnny Depp, who disappointingly has chosen to play Dillinger as self-consciously cool rather than earthy and gregarious. With dark commercial clouds currently hovering over expensive big-star vehicles and period pieces, Universal has no choice but to push the film hard as a glamorous gangbuster entertainment, which it is only in part. Mid-level biz is most likely.

For all his celebrity, Dillinger has only fronted two previous Hollywood features, and low-budgeters at that: Max Nosseck's undistinguished, wildly fictional 1945 Monogram cheapie starring a tough Lawrence Tierney, and John Milius' uneven 1973 AIP effort in which Warren Oates' performance emphasized the anti-hero's folksy and funny sides. Neither is very satisfactory, leaving a void "Public Enemies" endeavors to fill with a full-canvas approach that, inspired by the enormous detail provided by Bryan Burrough's terrific 2004 book, hews with considerable, although not complete, fidelity to the historical record.

Like other Mann films, this one offers a lot of ominously rumbling, meticulously embroidered downtime occasionally interrupted by spasms of violence and action. After briefly alluding to Dillinger's prior nine-year prison term, the yarn begins cracklingly with the outlaw engineering the mass escape of old cohorts from the Indiana State Penitentiary. The year is 1933, "the golden age of bank robbery," as a front title puts it, a time when the public readily extended its sympathy to robbers who preyed upon the banks, which many blamed for their financial distress.

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