By William Wolf

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Johnny Depp is an actor who can keep you riveted, even with as low-key a performance as he gives as John Dillinger, the ruthless criminal who caught the imagination of the public during the 1930s depression by robbing banks, institutions none to popular at the time. Avoiding histrionics of protagonists in many gangster films, Depp’s Dillinger in “Public Enemies” is resolute but understated, save for an occasional slight smirk or romantic dialogue with his girlfriend Billie. Playing her, the striking Marion Cottilard, remembered for her brilliant performance as Edith Piaf, brings a much-needed human quality.

Director Michael Mann spins this version of the Dillinger story with a mix of fast action, busy machine guns and a refusal to glamorize Dillinger and other noted outlaws of the period a la "Bonnie and Clyde." The cinematography is superb and the scenes well-staged, whether long shots of crowds, speeding cars or intense close-ups. There is also an effective look of the era thanks to accoutrements like an NRA sign, vintage cars and costuming. Tension mounts involving efforts to capture Dillinger, and the film builds to the by now well-known climax of his being gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, thanks to a tip off by the so-called Lady in Red who accompanied the bandit to see “Manhattan Melodrama.”

Other key casting includes Christian Bale as the Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who relentlessly tracked Dillinger on orders of J. Edgar Hoover, who built his bureau around the reputation, earned or not, of hunting gangsters as public enemies. Billy Crudup is effective as the ambitious Hoover, determined to enhance his reputation and that of his G-Men, but frustrated at Dillinger’s ability to repeatedly escape.

The only trouble with being low-key instead of doing the sort of rip-roaring gangster films like those starring James Cagney is a lack of excitement. In fact, some of the dialogue is so toned down as to be hard to hear. There is intensity, yes, but it is the crime and the chase at the forefront, not characters with whom one can either sympathize or detest. Dillinger was a ruthless killer, but this look at him, for all the action, is on the bland side and we only understand him on a surface level.

Yet there is no doubt that Mann, working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, has made an accomplished, intelligent movie. A Universal Pictures release.


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