It's not necessary to know much about John Dillinger, or the early FBI, or even the classic Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, in order to get something out of Michael Mann's dead-serious, rather somber Public Enemies. But a little perspective is always a good thing.
Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, with grim, resolute expressions on their faces, portray bank robber Dillinger and FBI hoodlum hunter Melvin Purvis, respectively, as fierce adversaries out of a different time. In 1933, as the film opens on Dillinger staging a jail break to spring his crew from the Indiana state prison in Michigan City, a man could rob a bank and then drive a hundred miles and sit down to dinner at his home, as long as he could outrun the local cops. Dillinger, the FBI's Public Enemy Number One, could actually stroll unrecognized into a Chicago police station and walk around, studying the cops' clippings and mug shots of him. Police and thieves, lacking such modern conveniences as cell phones and the Internet, essentially played primitive hunting games with each other. Stake out, spot your man, shoot to kill. Purvis is introduced to us in a field, shooting down a crook like a big-game hunter.
But that way of life was fading, even in the mid-1930s. The Dillinger era was also the age of consolidation. J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup as a prissy bureaucrat) was busy shaping the FBI into a national crime-fighting organization. And on the other side, men like the Chicago Outfit's Frank Nitti were turning bootlegging gangs into the conglomerate known as organized crime. Neither side had any use for a wild-hair outlaw like Dillinger, a genuine folk hero to some, who refused to harm ordinary people (he tells a depositor in a bank he's sticking up that he doesn't want the man's money, only the bank's) but brought police heat to the syndicate with his brazen shootouts.
Dillinger had to go. No wonder Depp plays him with such an edgy, haunted look. Other later-period movies about that era — Bonnie and Clyde, for instance, or even John Milius' 1973 Dillinger — had fun with the old cars, the wardrobes, and the ricky-ticky music. Mann's vision instead burrows deeply into the depths of the Great Depression, from the terse screenplay (by Mann himself, Northern Irish writer Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman of TV's Southland, adapted from Bryan Burrough's book), and Dante Spinotti's exquisite alternating blue-and-amber-toned cinematography to Elliot Goldenthal's orchestral score, with its echoes of Mahler. The numerous prison breaks and gunfights are handled with brisk, matter-of-fact brutality.
Mann populates Dillinger's Midwest with a terrific cast of supporting players, especially Stephen Dorff as Dillinger henchman Homer Van Meter, Lili Taylor as a female sheriff (!), Peter Gerety as Dillinger's scene-stealing defense attorney, and Mann regular Stephen Lang as G-man Charles Winstead, one of Purvis' Texas hunters. Sad-eyed Marion Cotillard, the one-time Edith Piaf, takes a poignant turn as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's half-French, half-Native American girlfriend.
Bale, as the implacable cop Purvis, essentially plays one note, perfectly. Our sympathies are clearly with the outlaw, whom Depp imagines as a combination of Hamlet and his Wade Walker in Cry-Baby — all-American born-to-lose doom with a tinge of Euro glamour. He finally gets a chance to use his Kentucky twang in character and even recycles a line from Bonnie and Clyde: "I'm John Dillinger. I rob banks."
Leave it to the French to take a standard-brand comic premise like the Middle-Aged-Man-Meets-Sexy-Young-Woman-and-Makes-a-Fool-of-Himself and twist it in a couple of unexpected directions. Darker directions, off the beaten path.
We said "Leave it to the French" but it's really "Leave it to Anne Fontaine." The Luxembourg native, now a French-based writer-director (How I Killed My Father, Dry Cleaning), has a talent for capturing the bizarre in the foibles of the aspirational middle class. And The Girl from Monaco has plenty of situational material to work with in its story of a successful defense attorney (Fabrice Luchini) going bananas over a leggy blond TV weather girl (Louise Bourgoin) while the lawyer's stoic bodyguard (Roschdy Zem) looks on disapprovingly.
In the opulent title principality with its Riviera beachfront, famed criminal lawyer Bertrand Beauvois (Luchini) is defending a rich woman (veteran femme fatale Stéphane Audran, a nice touch) against a charge of murder. Audran's Mme. Lassalle is accused of killing her employee, a Russian with organized crime connections, and security is so tight that the Monaco court appoints an operative named Christophe Abadi (Zem) to keep an eye on Bertrand. That means "sweeping" a hotel room, driving the lawyer around, and generally sticking to him like glue for the duration of the trial. At first we're tempted to note that French actor Zem bears a striking resemblance to President Obama, but then Zem, and Obama, too, have "anywhere" faces. They would fit right in walking down the street anywhere in the greater Mediterranean/African region, from Damascus to Cairo to Marseille to Fez.
After a short scene in which Bertrand's emotional ex-wife dramatically tries to return to him — the attorney asks his bodyguard to ease her aside — Bertrand runs into Audrey Varella (Bourgoin), the hyper-slutty, mega-ditzy doll who clowns her way through the local TV weather forecast, at a party and she instantly comes on to him. Why? He's a flabby, fiftyish lawyer; she's a mini-skirted blond sex bomb (think the young Laura Dern crossed with Ludivine Sagnier) who parties all night at discos, affects baby talk, and lives in a teenage-style apartment dominated by a portrait of Princess Di. Turns out she wants to "profile" Bertrand, in filmmaker Fontaine's perfect parody of a TMZ-type airhead video bite. Christophe has his suspicions about Audrey as well, but from another angle: he used to date her.
Tagging around behind Audrey like a wallflower at the orgy, obligingly swallowing her pills and waking up feeling way out of his league even though he's indulging in a classic male fantasy, Betrand ends up philosophizing to the sympathetic Christophe about sex (the "wonders we'll discover" speech) and life in general. And so we've got a strained semi-comic love triangle complicated by midlife crisis, conflicting duties, and heaps of Euro-naughtiness. And all the while we're expecting Russian hoods to pop up and shoot Bertrand. Fontaine drives this hybrid vehicle all the way into the outskirts of Claude Chabrol country before she's through. By then this seemingly light-hearted sex comedy has taken three or four sharp turns we'd never encounter on the Hollywood Freeway.