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Stylish ‘Enemies’ Glosses Over Character Flaws

public-enemies

"Public Enemies" is a good movie - sometimes very good - that could have been a great one.

Should have been, even. With the talent involved, expectations were plenty high. Michael Mann directs the story of John Dillinger (at least the final chapter), with Johnny Depp as the gangster and Marion Cotillard as his love interest. Christian Bale is on hand as the FBI agent obsessed with bringing Dillinger in, one way or another.

But the movie plays ultimately like a victory of style over substance, though it's stylish indeed. That's often true of Mann's movies on first viewing; they age well. Perhaps that will be the case with "Public Enemies," as well. We'll see, but for now, it feels like a near miss.

Bale is the biggest problem. He's miscast as Melvin Purvis, burdened with a terrible Southern accent (even more annoying than his constant gravelly voice when donning cape and mask in the "Dark Knight" films). The idea, evidently, is that Purvis and Dillinger are equally devoted to their tasks, even if they're on opposite sides of the law.

But the Purvis character is underwritten. While clearly devoted to running down Dillinger, does he sacrifice family and friends in the pursuit? Does it take a toll on his personal life?

Dunno. He just shows up now and again, seething whenever Dillinger slips through the Bureau's fingers (which is often).

Depp is quite good as Dillinger, a criminal at the height of his powers. The Depression drags on, and people see Dillinger as a sort of folk hero; he robs banks, not the people in them ("I'm not here for your money," he tells a man who has offered his cash). He's all about id; he lives completely in the moment, evidently either aware that the good times won't last forever or unconcerned that they'll end.

What do you want, Billie (Cotillard) asks as he courts her?

"Everything," Dillinger replies. "Right now."

Another time, when warned there's an expiration date on his exploits, Dillinger replies, "We're having too good a time today. We ain't thinking about tomorrow."

Purvis is. He has to, with J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) breathing down his neck. Hoover is bent on creating a national bureau, to track criminals down across state lines. Crudup has a ball, and is immensely enjoyable, as the egotistical, officious Hoover, conveying the complexity of the character in a few appearances.

Mann's direction is at times stunning. He uses close-ups extensively, demanding that you don't break eye contact with the characters. In one scene, Dillinger flees through a forest at night. Mann holds the frame on Depp's face, while in the background, employing a depth-of-field Orson Welles might envy, we see agents scrambling behind him. The effect heightens the tension, and is enormously fun to watch.

Mann brings the film into the present with a harrowing scene in which agents brutalize Billie to get information on Dillinger; any and all references to the current debate about torture are doubtless intentional and welcome.

In fact, despite Depp's best efforts, and Cotillard's always-luminous presence, Mann is the star here. But there's a distance between the audience and the film that can't quite be overcome. The effort, on all fronts, is outstanding. The execution, alas, particularly in the case of Bale's character, is not.

Rated R for gangster violence and some language.

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