Style and Substance

'Public Enemies' takes historical liberties, but presents John Dillinger's life in captivating fashion

Crime-film maestro Michael Mann goes back to the '30s for his latest film, the characteristically hypnotic and moody Public Enemies. Johnny Depp does amazing things as John Dillinger, the infamous bank robber who should've opted for a nice summer drive rather than a movie on a hot night in 1934.

Mann continues to be a master of stylistic crime drama. Public Enemies stands alongside his Heat, Collateral and Manhunter in the genre.

Depp, even though he is 15 years older than Dillinger when he died, is right at home in the role. Anybody who has seen Dillinger's smirk in old photos will know that Depp has nailed the man's look and attitude. And when Dillinger is seen displaying his menacing smile as he watches Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama just moments before being gunned down, you can see Depp reveling in the moment. Dillinger probably related to the goings-on in the last movie he watched, and Depp eerily portrays this.

Aside from the Depp performance, the most notable thing about the film involves the shootouts, and there are plenty. Mann actually did a night shoot at the location of the legendary Little Bohemia Lodge gunfight. I'm thinking folks associated with this film are going to get nominated for some sound Oscars, because the thud of bullets hitting trees in the forest is appropriately frightening. Mann also went to great lengths to depict Dillinger's two prison breakouts, and shot at the actual jail in Crown Point, Ind., where the gangster carved a fake gun out of wood and used it for his escape.

Mann and his fellow screenwriters take plenty of artistic license when it comes to historical accuracy. Notorious criminals such as Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) die before Dillinger in the film, but actually outlived the man in real life (although they all perished in 1934). There's actually a very odd moment in the film when Dillinger meets FBI agent Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) and calls him the man who got Pretty Boy Floyd. History tells us that Floyd was still alive at the time being depicted.

It's easy to forgive the historical inaccuracies. It's also easy to forgive actress Marion Cotillard for slipping into her French accent during a prison torture scene. Cotillard, who plays Dillinger girlfriend Billie Frechette, is a fine actress who might need to work on that American accent a little more. Still, her work as a Wisconsin girl taken in by Dillinger's charms is captivating.

While Depp might be the main attraction here, the work of Bale as the determined Purvis is just as powerful. The script gives the man an exaggerated role as far as bagging bad guys is concerned, but Bale's depiction of the crime fighter (made all the more interesting because he is, indeed, Batman) is haunting.

If the movie has a major fault, it's that it tries to jam too much into its running time. J. Edgar Hoover, as portrayed by Billy Crudup, could've used a little more screen time. Mann seemingly avoids much of the controversy that plagued Hoover's early career, including his animosity toward Purvis. In this film, Hoover is basically portrayed as an ornery boss who talks like he should be announcing a Chicago Cubs baseball game.

These are mere quibbles. The film is one of the year's best so far, and it gives us another chance to bask in the greatness of Depp and Mann. No doubt, there are many other movies that could be made about the multiple figures in this film. As for showing us what Dillinger was about, Public Enemies completes this task with style and substance.