Michael Mann deserves major gratitude from me for one thing above all else: Thanks to him, I finally understand what apparently frustrated so many people about Stanley Kubrick.
Frankly, I've never grasped the cult of Mann over the years. Though his creation of the iconic "Miami Vice" TV series tended to define him for a decade, he never struck me as a quintessential style-over-substance guy as he started making earthy dramas like Heat and Collateral. I could recognize his facility as a cinematic craftsman, and his knack for editing together masterfully tense scenes. But his movies never connected with me emotionally. What Kubrick's detractors saw in the 2001: A Space Odyssey director, I saw in Michael Mann, even in something as ostensibly "romantic" as The Last of the Mohicans: He was all in his head, and never in his heart.
Mann's new film, Public Enemies, seems on its surface to be an attempt to take things in that more emotional direction. Sure, he's telling a story about criminals, specifically the period in 1933-1934 when John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) had captured the public imagination as a Robin Hood-type bank robber who never stole from individuals. Mann and his co-screenwriters Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett—working from Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book—also follow federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) as his crime-fighting efforts earn the favor of J. Edgar Hoover (an almost unrecognizable Billy Crudup) and land him the task of tracking down Dillinger.
But there's also, in theory, a love story at the core of Public Enemies. Dillinger launches a whirlwind courtship of coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), if in fact "courtship" is the proper word to describe Dillinger's no-nonsense way of telling a girl, "You're with me now." The two become lovers and on-the-lam traveling companions, at times separated by incarceration or law-enforcement observation but forever devoted to one another (the odd visit to a prostitute by Dillinger aside).
At least, that's what we're supposed to feel. Mann, however, crafts "intimate" scenes that only brush the surface of his characters. What draws Billie to Dillinger beyond his bad-boy appeal? Is Dillinger's fascination with Billie connected to the photo he keeps in his pocket watch, perhaps his mother? And if so, isn't that more creepy than romantic? Depp does a terrific job of creating a Dillinger who's all-business when it comes to his heists, yet also takes pleasure in his celebrity and in making law enforcement look foolish. His sensitive side, however, isn't high on Mann's list of priorities.
It's impressive, then, that Public Enemies remains so consistently engrossing almost entirely on the basis of individual sequences. Terrific set pieces make Mann's 140 minutes feel like it's flying by: a botched stakeout at an apartment suspected of being Dillinger's hideout; a guns-blazing bank job teaming Dillinger with the crazed "Baby Face" Nelson (Stephen Graham), a stark contrast to Dillinger's preferred style; an FBI siege at the gang's rural Wisconsin hideout; even Dillinger walking incognito through the police office devoted to his capture. Mann understands the timing and the geography of action sequences as well as any filmmaker working, leading to an almost constant state of tension.
Indeed, there's a lot of background context here beyond the shootouts and chases that adds to the experience. Bale has a somewhat thankless role, but he's effective at conveying the pressure felt by the guy who needed to make the FBI look indispensable as Hoover attempts to consolidate his power. There's some interesting stuff about Chicago's freshly minted crime syndicates turning against Dillinger for bringing too much high-profile attention to interstate lawbreaking. Mann can even make it fascinating watching guys plan to commit a robbery.
There's just that one nagging little detail: Do we really care? The climatic FBI stakeout at the movie theater where Dillinger famously (HISTORICAL SPOILER ALERT!) meets his end is another great sequence, built on Dillinger enjoying a gangster flick that seems to validate his approach to life. Maybe I should feel sympathetic as the last few minutes unfold. Maybe I should wonder about the message Dillinger wants to pass on to Billie. My head tells me I'm watching a great director at work—and that there was also the potential for something with less of a chilly heart.
Public Enemies opens at the Carmike 10 Friday, July 3.