Michael Mann, the great director of movies like Heat and Last of the Mohicans, here gives us his take on the legendary ’30s gangster John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp. Depp can be brilliant in the right role, but this is not that role. He’s uncharacteristically devoid of charisma in Public Enemies, sleep-walking through most of his performance. Making matters worse, the film spends equal time and attention on his police pursuers, embodied primarily by actor Christian Bale. The back and forth, together with Mann’s decision to skip a lot of exposition, makes Public Enemies a confusing, emotionally devoid experience for a casual viewer with a hazy-at-best memory of Dillinger or ’30s gangsters.
I don’t remember any attempt to explain who John Dillinger is or what he did — Mann just assumes the viewer already knows something about him. The biggest thing I remember about Dillinger is how he became a folk hero to the common people. There’s little of that here, which is too bad — more might have given Depp an angle on making the character appealing. Instead, the movie is simply a long cat and mouse chase. There’s a half-assed attempt to wring an emotional ending out of Dillinger’s relationship with his girlfriend. Marion Cotillard (Oscar-winner for La Vie En Rose) performs admirably as the love interest, but it’s too little, too late, for anyone looking for an emotional or meaningful connection to an otherwise dry and sloppy recitation of history.