Johnny Depp and Christian Bale have the finest sets of cheekbones in moving pictures today, and they sure get a workout in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Bale's in particular are a wonder; thanks to the way they frame his expressionless lips he could be gnawing the inside of his mouth into corned beef. Not to be outdone, Depp loosens and contorts to him to fetching effect, especially when he holds a tommy gun or makes promises to Marion Cotillard that even Clark Gable and William Powell couldn't utter without making their mustaches wither.
Glowering in fantastic clothes -- that's all Mann gets out of Depp and Bale (like Clint Eastwood in the seventies and eighties, Bale's recent stint of non-acting has acquired a patina of respectability). While Mann is too obsessive about art direction and such to ever conform to hackdom, his scripts show a second-rate mind susceptible to the influence of pop psychology and mytho-poetic macho twaddle. But Mann's recent forays into genre pictures has flattened his ambitions. Collateral was surprisingly boring, Miami Vice redundant, but Public Enemies is his most anonymous work yet. For reasons I can't fully explain, Mann abandons his usual sharp eye for men filling widescreen spaces; it took more than an hour for "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Homer, and the other members of the Dillinger gang to register as faces, and not a jot more. A gangster pic without a colorful supporting cast is like a Western without a saloon brawl. The rest of the action is listless (a nightime shootout in a forest goes on a couple of minutes longer than necessary), and the transitions jarring. Does Mann mean to suggest that Dillinger spent almost ten years in jail for a petty crime, escaped, assembled a first-rate crew, robbed banks successfully, and became a public icon? It's a blur.
Within this posturing lies the seed of a good movie: the creation of a federal police force that grafted developments in forensics and criminology onto vigilantism. In borrowing much from the criminals they wanted dead or behind bars, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI took its cue from the weaselly, plump, neurotic man at its head who wanted his G-men to wear smart suits as they shot crooks in the back. A film about the chicanery of crime fighting -- the implicit cooperation between the Mafia and the FBI in taking care of small fry like John Dillinger -- sounds exactly like the kind of project to which Mann would be irresistibly attracted (the corporate maneuvering in The Insider has the verisimilitude of a Louis Auchincloss novel); and in Billy Crudup's weird, very entertaining performance as Hoover (and being J. Edgar Hoover was a performance, as the press-savvy chief recognized in a career spanning ten presidential administrations), I saw material rich with comic potential. Since Mann isn't known to giggle at meal times, I wouldn't doubt that this ironic approach was beyond his sensibilities. Better an interesting failure than an inert one, though.
Crudup, by the way, has fabulous cheekbones.