Moviegoers hoping that Public Enemies would have been the film to save the summer season from its own worst impulses will be disappointed to learn that the Michael Mann production, while hardly part of the problem, is certainly no solution. A classy motion picture whose individual moments are greater than the whole, this period gangster saga may be filled with exciting gun battles yet can't deliver the firepower in ways that matter the most: empathy, originality, and a willingness to burrow beneath the legend.
Forget about fidelity to the facts: Since this is a Hollywood production, historical accuracy matters less than streamlining a good story. So while real life might have dictated that the vicious bank robber Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) did in fact die four months after the imminently more likable John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the filmmakers understand that our own sense of fair play (or narrative pacification; take your pick) demands that we see Nelson go down in a hail of bullets well before Dillinger has his own date with destiny. At any rate, Mann and fellow scribes Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman (adapting Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934) capture what's most important about Dillinger: his folk-hero appeal, and the way many Depression-era citizens would have found it possible to cheer an outlaw who spent his time sticking it to the banks.
Naturally, an actor of considerable charm would be required to play such a dashing rogue, so it's obvious that the short list of candidates would basically consist of Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio (who was briefly involved with the project several years ago). Depp possesses the right demeanor for the role, and if he doesn't register as powerfully as we would expect, that's the fault of the writers, who make Dillinger more of an enigma than necessary. Still, the actor fares better than his two co-stars.
As Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who pursues Dillinger with single-minded determination, Christian Bale is playing a character even more one-dimensional than his John Connor in Terminator Salvation. Purvis is supposed to be the dynamic point-counterpoint to Dillinger (a favorite tactical ploy of Mann's, as evidenced by past pictures like Heat and Collateral), but the role is so thinly written -- and Bale tackles it with so little interest -- that it's hardly a fair fight.
Then there's the case of La Vie en Rose Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, cast as Dillinger girlfriend Billie Frechette. Unless we're discussing Bonnie and Clyde or Roger Corman cheapies, no film genre is less friendly to women than the gangster flick (not even the Western, which among other achievements allowed the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford to carve out memorable legacies). So until one brutal sequence toward the end, Cotillard has little to do but fret and fuss over her man's line of work.
Yet what Public Enemies lacks in complexity, it makes up for in artfulness. Because the movie is lucky enough to have someone as skilled as Mann at the helm, it's often able to camouflage its narrative limitations with stunning stylistics that, crucially, aren't of the distant, hermetically sealed variety but rather infuse the piece with a different sense of purpose. Elliot Goldenthal's soaring score, Dante Spinotti's camera angles, and the sound team's snap-crackle-and-pop approach (gun shots are frequently delivered with stunning clarity, a far cry from the sonic overkill of that infernal Transformers sequel) support the costume and set departments to fully immerse us in an era in which a man's best friend is his weapon, and the manner in which he tips his fedora is as important as what's in his heart or on his mind. That's a remarkably shallow outlook, but with Public Enemies, that's usually about as deep as it gets.