"I like fast cars, baseball, whiskey and you," the handsome slickster says to a doe-eyed floozie. "What else do you need to know?"
The answer for viewers is: More than Public Enemies informs us about the life and crimes of 1930s bank robber John Dillinger, played oh-so-cool by Johnny Depp. If any role other than Capt. Jack Sparrow ever called for Depp's outsized swagger, his gift for making despicable antiheroes embraceable, it's this one.
Depp's bloodless portrayal at the center of Michael Mann's Depression-era epic is problematic yet doesn't prevent Public Enemies from being a model of period design, regularly interrupted by bullet squibs making holes in the scenery and costumes. It isn't a bad performance, just not what a movie loaded with violent style requires. It's the empty chamber going click when another burst of firepower is necessary.
Yet there are times when Mann quiets the gunfire, matching Depp's understatement: a climactic stroll through a nearly empty police station, looking at photos of FBI targets, each stamped "deceased" except his own, or a getaway when Dillinger actually obeys the law at a red light, with lawmen standing on the curb. Those scenes are tenser than the shootouts, but Mann, like a good thief, knows where the money is.
Public Enemies begins with Dillinger slightly past his peak, orchestrating a prison break to reunite his gang. Times are changing, with local authorities gladly handing over the robbery watch to a newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation, headed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Crimes are changing too, with mobsters preferring racetrack schemes over messier, traceable stealing.
Dillinger sticks to his guns and MO, which Hoover views as a personal attack. Thrust into the avenger role is agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, so wooden that you get splinters from watching him). The movie settles into a rhythm of expertly crafted robberies, ambushes and getaways, with an occasional romantic interlude between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard).
One can't avoid recalling how Bonnie and Clyde made this material zing in 1967, becoming an emblem of youthful rebellion. Given the current economic climate, the act of robbing banks — but allowing working folks to keep their cash — should offer similar vicarious thrills. Public Enemies lurches through its midsection like a gut-shot gangster, still able to fire back and hit a few targets yet increasingly in vain.
The third act recoups interest, with Dillinger's betrayal and death outside a Chicago movie theater. There's a nod to the morbid cult that grew around his passing but little to suggest any morality conflict in that. Public Enemies could be a jaunty eyewitness to a legend, like Bonnie and Clyde, yet proceeds as if it's building its own.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.