Depp, 'Public Enemies': Dreamy
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
A master at deconstructing crime stories, director Michael Mann has built a neon-lit gallery of bad guys and man-hunters, twinned versions off the same samurai template. From TV's sublime "Crime Story" to the big screen's "Heat" and "Collateral," Mann heats up his work with stylistic flamboyance and charismatic antiheroes who stand out from the crowd, for good or ill, gain or glory. Mann's latest crime story projects minimalist cool, rarely reaching out to pull you into hot cinematic waters. Instead, the dense, gorgeous HD hyperreality of "Public Enemies" is a little distancing, as though we were half in and half out of a compelling dream or hypnotic trance, or a dying man's flashback. The effect is as strange and exhilarating as riding the running board of John Dillinger's fast, shiny, black getaway car.
"Enemies" chronicles the short, not-so-very-happy life of a Depression-era celebrity, the legendary '30s outlaw who robbed banks for a living. John Dillinger's profession made him a hero to Americans whose lives were being foreclosed by those very banks. In a landscape of economic and existential hopelessness, a good-looking fellow who still knew how to make a living and have fun seemed as glamorous as a movie star.
The film's very first image is a high, screen-spanning wall, the Depression state of mind. When Dillinger busts his pals out of that walled prison (the action is fast, focused and furious), he's striking a blow for all his fans. Who wouldn't want to ride with someone who crashes through No Exit signs to become an American somebody: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whisky, fast cars," he explains at one point. "What more do you need to know?"
As the dashing bank robber departs her farmhouse -- sanctuary after the prison escape -- a colorless young woman half-heartedly tries for her own breakout, "Take me with you, mister?" Mann's camera turns and lowers slightly, so that her weathered two-story looms over her like prison or tombstone. She's rural sister to Billie Frechette's coat-check girl, who claims Dillinger the moment he sets eyes on her, as surely and instantly as love in the movies: "You wanna take that ride with me?" he asks, inviting her to believe there's really some place to go. As Dillinger's soul mate, the lovely Marion Cotillard's face is all fluid faith, antidote to her lover's mostly affectless mask.
Recalling Sam Peckinpah's radical Western "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," "Enemies" features a pop-cult outlaw doomed to death from the film's first frame. Tight-lipped, self-contained, the very antithesis of his Sparrow and Sweeney personae, Johnny Depp plays Dillinger (brilliantly) as Billy's more introverted brother. Both are glam sacrifices, halfway conscious of living the legend that's claiming them, one foot in and one foot outside of myth.
Like Peckinpah, Mann sees progress and a shrinking world as the death of anachronistic bad men like Billy the Kid and Dillinger. When crime busters and mobsters alike become organized, with the help of sophisticated communication systems, it's to no one's advantage to have loners and showboaters like Dillinger gumming up the corporate machinery.
Depp seamlessly channels a Dillinger who lives deep within himself, intensely engaged, as observer and player, by his own story. Despite his passionate pick-up lines (obligatory pipe dreams about present and future fun), this gangster isn't unaware that he mostly spends his time running and hiding, acting out while robbing banks that look like art-deco theaters, then taking cover in dreary hotels and whorehouses. Providing very public entertainment, he's continually cocking an ironic eye at the groundlings.
The film's narrative kicks into high gear from the get-go, but its rhythm is paroxysm followed by almost supernatural silence and immobility, like the respirations of a drowning man. Only once, when Billie eludes an FBI stakeout to join him, does Dillinger's face relax into un-self-conscious joy. Celebrity takes it out of a man.
Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis mirrors that joyless expression of tight-lipped watchfulness, arresting the eye among mostly anonymous FBI agents, standing in stark contrast to celebrity-stalker Hoover (Billy Crudup, deliciously smarmy). Only Stephen Lang, superb as a hard-case lawman imported from Texas, eclipses Bale, whom Mann often shoots in billboard close-ups, like an advertisement for old-school American rectitude.
The film's bravura passages are deftly choreographed by Mann and gorgeously shot by Dante Spinotti. When the captured Dillinger's plane touches down in Indiana, the dark night lights up with flashing cameras. In dreamlike slo-mo, the star moves through the crowd, food for photos. Mann visually underscores the connection between public and private performances when, during the Little Bohemia Lodge shootout between the Dillinger and Purvis gangs, the searing white blasts of tommy guns echo those earlier camera flares ("shots" meant to capture celebrity). Again the action is hallucinatory, as the star and various extras careen through a surreal forest, sometimes in slo-mo, the hushed quiet broken only by bullets slamming into trees.
In a late, super-eerie, mostly dead-silent sequence, Dillinger strolls into the HQ of the "John Dillinger Squad." While a clutch of cops listen to a baseball game, the object of their desire surveys a bulletin board covered with pictures of his deceased pals, his jailed lover, himself. Oddly invisible, he's like a ghost visiting a freeze-framed movie of his life. But Dillinger's revivified by the extraordinarily sensual black-and-white images from the 1934 gangster movie "Manhattan Melodrama." His own mug shot left him cold, but Clark Gable's dark, bad-guy looks draw a small smile of appreciation, perhaps of recognition. Does Dillinger, at that moment, get where he stands, somewhere between that featureless wall he faced at the beginning of "Enemies" and the seductive silver screen that presages his ending?
When Billie Frechette shared her thin backstory with John Dillinger, each chapter ended with, "And nothing exciting ever happened there either." No critic can ever say that about a Michael Mann movie.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.