Over the years, the gangster-movie genre has undergone periodic changes. Sometimes it’s about the cops (“Serpico,” “The French Connection”); other times, it’s about the robbers (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Bugsy”), while Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino upped the ante on sadistic violence. Now Michael Mann delves into the ‘lone outlaw,’ a mythic, unpredictable folk hero operating outside the organized crime underworld.
After breaking out of prison in 1933, notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) launches a crime wave that infuriates crusading J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his fledgling FBI. Hoover appoints agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to track down Dillinger and his gang: Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham), Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) and Homer van Meter (Stephen Dorff). Meanwhile, in Chicago, Dillinger falls madly in love with a naïve half-French, half-Native American coat-check girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and convinces her to join him on the lam.
What separates “Public Enemies” from run-of-the-mill cops ‘n’ robbers pictures is how Mann – with screenwriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman – develops Dillinger’s fascinating character, based on Bryan Burrough’s “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34” (2004). Totally self-assured, Dillinger brags, “I can hit any bank I want anywhere,” confident he’ll never be caught because “They ain’t tough enough or fast enough or smart enough.”
There’s ironic humor amid the shoot ‘em-ups. During a heist, Dillinger doesn’t take a financially strapped depositor’s cash, explaining, “I’m not here for your money; I’m here for the bank’s money.” And, on a lark, he strolls, unrecognized, through Purvis’ office as FBI agents listen to a baseball game, nonchalantly inquiring, “What’s the score?”
Drenched in flawlessly atmospheric authenticity, Johnny Depp is a revelation, while Marion Cotillard (Oscar-winner as Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose”) is stunning. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Public Enemies” is an awesome, action-packed, enthralling 8. As of now, it’s a top contender for the Best Picture Oscar, especially since the Academy has decided to expand the number of eligible nominees from five to ten.