Anyone doubting the role charisma plays in the movies need look no further than Public Enemies, an old-fashioned gangster picture built on simple star power. Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI agent Melvin Purvis make this retelling of an oft-told tale from "the Golden Age of Bank Robbery" riveting, rousing entertainment.
Director Michael Mann, who gave us Heat and Miami Vice, makes the violence immediate (though not shocking) and the story line straight and narrow in this reinterpretation of the standard 1930s gangster epic. This history is usually filmed as period parable — the populist Dillinger toying with the cops, playing the Robin Hood to bank customers and meeting his end through the treachery of a woman. Sometimes, it has been a moral fable — intrepid, incorruptible G-men hunting down ruthless thugs.
Mann goes for something more ambiguous, showing Dillinger and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) as equally enamored of publicity, equally willing to cross the line. This Dillinger is capable of brutal beatings or killings. This Hoover is a fey class snob wanting to fill his crime- fighting corps with college graduates but willing to allow hard cases in to torture so that he can get his man.
Depp, sporting a scar and a mustache, digs into the glib, winking smart-aleck in Dillinger, such as when he strong-arms a bank officer into opening a safe.
"We're gonna play a game, Mr. president. It's call spin the dial."
Bale, free from his Batman burden and that hoarse voice he takes on under the cape, makes Purvis a man willing to pull the trigger but learning on the job. He and his team blunder several attempts to nab and hold "Public Enemy No. 1."
Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) plays the hat-check girl Dillinger fell for, a woman who questions him but still is drawn to him after learning what he does.
The film is gripping and efficient, introducing other "public enemies" — Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) — but shortchanging them. Most interesting is Crudup's turn as Hoover, showing us that we can rethink the FBI chief's sexuality without it diminishing his reputation for ruthlessness or simple competence. He grabbed the headlines but he got a dirty job done, too.
But as historic and entertaining as Public Enemies is, if we're moved, it's all due to the guys to whom Mann paid the big bucks. Depp and Bale, squared off as equals, make compelling enemies with charisma to burn.