Mann's latest is "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as charismatic Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger and Christian Bale as G-man Melvin Purvis. It's a fascinating bundle of contradictions -- authentic in a million details, deeply romanticized in others. Cool, calm and collected, this is more love story than gangster picture -- Marion Cotillard, Oscar winner for "La Vie En Rose," plays Dillinger's lover, Billie Frechette -- and it's more vivid around the edges than at its center. Yet a genuine filmmaking intelligence guides every scene, even the frustrating ones.
Director and co-writer Mann focuses on 1933-34, the final year and a half in the life of Dillinger, a time when the elusive bank robber's appearance in newsreels provoked bigger applause than that for FDR and Charles Lindbergh, according to one magazine account. For a few attention-grabbing months, Dillinger stayed one step ahead of the feds ( Billy Crudup plays crime czar J. Edgar Hoover) while Purvis, a narrowly conceived role played by a rather rigid Bale, endured more than a few missteps.
The script comes from Bryan Burrough's fine, expansive account "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34." While Mann focuses the film on Dillinger's last hurrah, he tries to suggest some of the other forces at work during those years, chiefly the mob syndicate's nationwide web of corruption. We meet a lot of tough guys; the script's structure seems built to support a much larger film (or a miniseries), and Dillinger and Purvis must compete for our attention against an interesting array of gangsters and federal law enforcement officials closing in on Dillinger's gang.
The outlaw at the center was the last of the Mohicans, in Mann's view. (Mann's version of "The Last of the Mohicans" marked an earlier combination of exacting period detail and swoony romance.) Like all Mann heroes, who are both humanized and fabulized by the director's meticulous touch, he is meant to evoke a kind of nostalgia for the days, if they ever existed, when men were men and codes were codes, and adversaries respected the rules of engagement.
Like a lot of things in this life, "Public Enemies" looks terrific at night and less so in broad daylight. Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot it in Midwest locations, both urban (Chicago, in case you hadn't heard) and rural, on high-definition digital video favoring hand-held, close-quarters compositions. The visual quality is striking, notably in a 15-minute sequence -- the best in the film; the one that makes it worth seeing -- pitting Dillinger and his cohorts against the feds in a northern Wisconsin lodge known as Little Bohemia. The inky darkness, the staggering explosions of light every time someone lets loose with a round from a Tommy gun -- none of it would look the same on celluloid. The scene is beautifully mapped out in every way, as strong as any of the violent set pieces in "Heat" or, more recently, Mann's big-screen version of "Miami Vice."
Mann's direction is excellent; the script, hit and miss. "What do you want?" Cotillard's Billie asks him. "Everything. Right now," Depp's laconic antihero answers. Elsewhere we get such period-accurate but cornball exchanges as:
"Don't kid a kidder."
"Don't play me for a fool!"
Depp is fully capable of exploring the subject's roguish charm as well as his dangerous side, but the screenplay by Ronan Bennett, Mann and Ann Biderman puts forth a rather dreamy conception of Public Enemy No. 1. For all its talk of living fast and dying young and time running out, the story's urgency feels muted. Yet you respond to the filmmaking, the pleasures of the Depression-era re-creations, even if you don't fully buy this easygoing depiction of Dillinger. Several key supporting characters are sharply realized. When Peter Gerety shows up as a bantam rooster of a syndicate lawyer, pouring on the blather in the courtroom like a wizard, you're thrilled to see a good actor get some juicy lines. In a different key, Stephen Lang (as a Texas lawman aiding Purvis) registers with unusual force. He has perhaps a dozen speaking lines, yet the coda belongs to him, and he makes the most of it. Cotillard embodies the film's inner tensions and Mann's aesthetic: The role of Billie begins in the key of "cliche gun moll," but the actress has a way of toughening her up and keeping her honest.
In an end-title we learn of Purvis' post-Dillinger fate (his run-ins with Hoover remain unmentioned), and it's not sufficiently set up. Even though Mann positions Purvis as an upright lawman with no stomach for the brutal tactics employed by some of his colleagues, he remains a recessive figure. There is, however, a tantalizingly effective scene when Purvis comes to see Dillinger in jail -- a more compact version of the coffee shop meeting in "Heat" between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Here, as in the Little Bohemia sequence, Mann nails it. Roughly half this film works like gangbusters, while the other half hits its marks, dutifully, and not even Elliot Goldenthal's turgid musical score can smother the half that clicks.