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Public Enemies

Even in real life, bad guys are more fun. It doesn't matter that crime doesn't pay. It doesn't matter that bad guys (often) come to bad ends. They're just more interesting to us, and if we have the slightest bit of empathy for them, you might as well set your villain against a piece of toast. That's how much we'll pay attention to the hero.

So though Director/co-writer Michael Mann's latest film is titled Public Enemies, it gets pretty hard to imagine that anyone was quite aware of the man who publicly hunted John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), even while it was happening. Mann can cast an alleged powerhouse actor against Depp, but any story involving Dillinger is going to be about Dillinger all the way, even with long stretches of Christian Bale looking soulfully conflicted as Melvin Purvis, G-Man.

Mann tries to strike a fair balance. After Dillinger stages a daring jailbreak for his gang, the director shifts to our first glimpse of Purvis, coolly hunting down notorious gangster Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). As Bale plays him, Purvis keeps his emotions bottled up, priding himself on being methodical and on the side of right.

You'd think that's just what the country would need in times of trouble. Public Enemies takes place smack-dab in the middle of the first Great Depression, and in many ways, lawlessness rules the land. When Dillinger robs a bank, all he has to do is cross state lines to get away - though you might not realize it, this is a movie about the formation of the F.B.I.

But even though the Feds should be the good guys, Dillinger, at least, has a code of honor. He always pays attention to the public, because as he puts it, he hides among them. Despite being a thief, he's a man of the people. It might be a self-serving act, but with Depp's charisma, it's hard to tell. Wherever Dillinger goes, including jail, people just like him.

Of course, nobody likes J. Edgar Hoover, and Billy Crudup gets to the heart of why. Hoover seems to be a man of grand gestures and ideas but no experience, more interested in power than what it should be wielded to accomplish. Mann and Crudup could have easily teamed to make Hoover a cartoonish villain; instead, it's subtle how they suggest the corruption under the public face. The handsome Crudup even hints at the toadish bureaucrat that Hoover would become, and if you pay careful attention, you might catch a hint of flirtation with his aide, Clyde Tolleson (Chandler Williams).

And therein lies the strength and the weakness of Public Enemies. All throughout, Mann restrains himself, taking his time to tell the story. It never quite gains a sense of momentum, instead playing out like Dillinger's nonchalant attitude. Now this happens, now that happens, and though historically it all leads to Dillinger's end, none of it really builds dramatically.

Even Dillinger's relationship with the love of his life, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), seems to be constructed of vignettes instead of flowing. He sees her, he wants her, he easily wins her, and then suddenly it's months later in Florida. Though Cotillard has trouble with a consistent Chicago accent - impressive at times and naturally French at others - she hits all the right emotional notes. It just feels like some of the song is missing.

Though narratively it has its flaws, Public Enemies still delivers in those vignettes. Shooting in HD, Mann refuses to distance us from these events. Instead of being a lovely period piece seen through the haze of the past, Public Enemies puts us there and immediate. These characters are charming, brutal, dangerous and a little sad, but most importantly, they're real.

Even the clips from a Clark Gable movie appear fresh and new, instead of scratchy and old, because Dillinger would have seen a new print. It's subtle stuff, perhaps, but the touches add up.

Mann continues the subtle touch in handling his themes. Dillinger may be as much a prisoner of his persona as he is owner of it. Purvis has none, except perhaps too much willingness to acknowledge his mistakes. And Hoover struggles to build one as a justice czar.

Though it covers a relatively short amount of time, Public Enemies also teems with characters, just like life. Many barely register as anything more than authentic-looking. Most of the nascent FBI looks a little doughy; these are not people obsessed with fitness as anything more than a means to an end. On the flip side, most of the gang looks sharp and hungry.

All of them are played by top-notch character actors, only occasionally distracting as you expect familiar faces to become somehow more important. Pay particular attention to the brilliant Stephen Lang, who keeps popping up after long disappearances. Mann makes it pay off, but it's frustrating to see how little the guy has to do in this film.

And still it comes down to Depp. He anchors Public Enemies, but also tilts it in his favor. Though the movie may be a little slow at times, it's worth it to watch actors like Depp really inhabit a character without a bunch of showy tics. When paired with Cotillard, their scenes make up in believability and intensity what they lack in narrative.

Not without flaws, Public Enemies still stands as a good achievement. It manages to be fairly historically accurate without sacrificing much Hollywood glamour. Melvin Purvis might not have cared, but we don't care much about him. Dillinger, however, wouldn't have it any other way.

Derek McCaw

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