“The only thing important is where somebody’s going.” That bit of existential wisdom comes from none other than John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the soft-spoken, bank-jacking antihero of “Public Enemies,” Michael Mann’s latest epic about unhappy tough guys doing what they do best. It’s offered by way of flirtation, as part of Dillinger’s out-of-nowhere and all-out attempt to impress a gorgeous hat-check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) — a pitch of woo so intense, and so divorced from what Billie considers realistic feeling, that it both unsettles and amuses her. “I’m catching up, meeting someone like you,” he tells her. “Boy, you’re in a hurry,” she deadpans. “If you were looking at what I’m looking at,” “Public Enemy” Number One informs her, “you’d be in a hurry, too.”
On first viewing, I was inclined to call “Public Enemies” minor Mann, a characterization meant not as a putdown, but a simple summary. As anyone who’s read me before well knows, I’m a student of the poetic-bombastic filmmaker, whose worst films are more visually arresting and artistically committed than almost any recent Oscar winner I can recall. His films often play like Samuel Fuller by way of Michelangelo Antonioni — violent tone poems exploring the angst of machismo and the impossibility of deep and lasting connection by way of dreamy montage, hypnotic music and disorienting, off-center compositions. I’m hugely impressed by Mann’s formal restlessness, his thematic consistency and his willingness to change up his game over time (moving from the Stanley Kubrick-level anal retentiveness of his work prior to 1999’s “The Insider” to a more visually and dramatically loose aesthetic, much of it stemming from his recent conversion to high-definition video and mostly handheld camerawork).
That said, “Public Enemies” initially struck me as a signpost/stopgap feature along the lines of “Collateral,” a Michael Mann 101 movie that compressed some of his signature tropes into easily graspable baubles, a work less interesting for its situations and set pieces than for the way in which it seemed to find its director taking stock of recent preoccupations and stylistic tics before moving on. (Conscious callbacks to prior Mann movies abound, such as the mirroring of obsessed cops and robbers, and gestures such as Dillinger somewhat gingerly laying his gun on a tabletop when he enters a hotel-room-as-domestic-sanctuary, and telling bank customers he’s after the bank’s money, not theirs — all echoes of key moments in “Heat” and its TV movie inspiration, “L.A. Takedown.”) The structure of Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman’s script is episodic, patchy even. Judged against the norms of modern screenwriting convention, the film doesn’t cover much ground; it’s episodic in a manner faintly reminiscent of mid-period Oliver Stone (think “Born on the Fourth of July” or “The Doors,” films that traded narrative-advancing montage for a spare assortment of protracted, often borderline real-time scenes).
And yet, in the two-plus weeks since I first saw “Public Enemies,” it has lingered in my mind more vividly than almost any Hollywood film of the past couple of years — and I’m convinced that its ostentatiously un-blockbustery tendencies are the source of the movie’s vividness. While offering many of the core elements that the marketplace demands (including a badass antihero, a crime-and-violence storyline and a love story), “Public Enemies” gives those same elements short shrift, the better to concentrate on intense but largely unarticulated feelings and psychological states.