Few directors capture seemingly accidental bits of lyrical business quite as well as Michael Mann. Early in Public Enemies, Mann’s telling of John Dillinger’s famed battle with law enforcement, a woman whose home serves as a hideout for gangsters begs Dillinger (Johnny Depp) to take her with him. He politely refuses but hesitates as the camera shakily reveals the woman and her child in front of a farmhouse sinking into Depression-era decay. He’s about to hit the dangerous open road. She’s stuck, but also rooted. Each lives a life the other will never have and will probably lay awake wanting, at least once in a while.
It’s a remarkable, fleeting moment in a movie that often struggles to live up to the power of its best scenes. Mann sets a struggle between cops and criminals against a landscape that’s changing on both sides of the law. Dillinger’s a bank robber, but bank robbery is starting to give way to more sophisticated criminal enterprises. He’s pursued, in full view of the public, by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a tireless enforcer who, without volunteering, has become the flag-bearer for a J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) PR campaign to expand the powers of his Bureau Of Investigation to the federal level.
Mann fills the background with a lot of fascinating detail but often has a hard time keeping the foreground in focus. Sometimes literally: Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti opt for hard, handheld digital-video images. These lend a sense of excitement to some of the action scenes—particularly a thrilling nighttime chase through the Wisconsin woods—but often give the film an unpleasantly unfinished look. That unfortunately matches an unfinished feel. Neither Depp nor Bale get a chance to get beneath the surface of their characters, supporting characters bleed together, and a love story between Depp and his moll (Marion Cotillard) never finds a heartbeat.
Mann, as ever, remains a master of methodical pursuit, but as the film inches toward Dillinger’s fateful night at Chicago’s Biograph Theater, he doesn’t offer much beyond methodical pursuit. Depp goes about the business of not getting caught; Bale goes about the business of catching him. In the end it doesn’t really come to mean all that much. Mann reduces a legendary game of cat-and-mouse to the size of a standard police procedural. His refusal to mythologize Dillinger’s exploits is audacious, but too much of Public Enemies feels disappointingly smaller than life.