When you watch Public Enemies, you can taste how much Johnny Depp loves being a star and wearing wide-brim fedoras and firing Tommy guns at G-men. And I ask you: Who wouldn’t? Depp is happily in sync with his role: His John Dillinger loves being a celebrity, too. Dillinger breaks out of prison, and is soon dressed to the nines at a Chicago nightclub and thunderstruck by a luscious Marion Cotillard—who’s believably smitten back, even if her American accent sinks in the mid-Atlantic. He’s recklessly romantic in other ways, an independent operator in an age of coldhearted syndicates—a beautiful, dying breed.
If director Michael Mann has a moral point of view on Dillinger’s bank jobs—which get people killed—I couldn’t discern it. Instead, he does a halfhearted retread of his Heat motif: that Dillinger and agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), though on opposite sides, have a code of honor. Dillinger doesn’t shoot anyone in cold blood, while Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) cackles at his carnage. Purvis stands in contrast to cops who torture suspects and to image-mongering J. Edgar Hoover (a fatted, effeminate Billy Crudup). Mann jumps back and forth between Dillinger and Purvis, but Bale is so dull he kills any parallel in the cradle.
Public Enemies has incidental pleasures (its hi-def video palette is fascinatingly weird), but it’s only Depp’s sense of fun that keeps it from being a period gangster museum piece. After Michael Jackson’s death, I rewatched his video of “Smooth Criminal”—a gangster fantasia with rat-tat-tat hoofing and a touch of Guys and Dolls. It’s madly inventive, genre-bending, at once a study in urban paranoia and a tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner. Public Enemies has none of that originality and passion, and Mann can’t dance.