Johnny Depp is a great actor. He’s a much better actor than Brad Pitt and just as good looking. And, just like Pitt, Depp has made a concerted effort in recent years to pick roles that highlight his acting instead of his looks. In fact, ever since Depp broke into show business with the teen cop drama “21 Jump Street” back in the late ‘80s and became a teen heartthrob (which he supposedly hated), he has been trying to escape the labels of hunk and leading man by choosing the macabre (Sweeney Todd), offbeat (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and downright strange (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) roles to hide in—and to show off his somewhat odder, uglier and character-loving side.
But, just like Pitt, every now and then, even Johnny Depp gives in and picks a role that reminds us and probably even himself of the unavoidable truth that ultimately pays the bills: Johnny Depp is gorgeous. And he is a movie star.
Public Enemies is a gangster movie. And it is a Michael Mann movie. Put those two together and you would expect something gritty and dark, intimate and powerful, heavy-hitting and just plain heavy. Mann has made a name for himself as a director with viscerally intense films such as The Insider, Collateral and Heat, and one would expect a Mann film set against a backdrop of Depression era gangster Chicago to be one filled with dark shadows and cerebral and conflicted heroes.
And maybe that’s the film Mann would have shot if he had cast a different actor in the lead role. But with Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger instead of, say, Ed Norton, or even Christian Bale (who plays the role of the lead FBI agent pursuing Dillinger instead), Public Enemies plays just a little lighter, a little less serious, and a little less heavy.
Having Depp’s name above the title instead of a Norton or a Bale also probably explains the July release date instead of a December one. Instead of being an Oscar contender, it feels now like slick shiny mid-summer box office bait for the over-20 crowd.
Now all of this makes it sound like I don’t respect or value Depp as an actor, when I really do. It’s just that Depp is at his best when he can hide in a character, get lost behind makeup and wigs and quirks and accents and truly dissolve away from that gloriously chiseled and perfect face of his that sometimes is so perfect it is all you see. He is at his best when he is given a character to really sink his teeth into, a Hunter S. Thompson, an Edward Scissorhands, a Willy Wonka, an Ed Wood, a Jack Sparrow, or a Sweeney Todd. The problem with John Dillinger is the myth was greater than the man and what this film leaves Depp to play, or I shall say what the screenplay gives Depp to work with, is not a lot. So we are left with a gloriously shot film filled to the brim with a beautiful Johnny Depp wearing gorgeous gangster costumes, looking oh-so-cool robbing banks, shooting guns and wooing the girl. He’s Butch Cassidy meets Humphrey Bogart and he’s just so cool you can’t stand it. But, past that, there’s not much else.
And, add to that, this movie just goes nowhere. It looks really great, it gets you right up in there, there is one really great shootout in the woods that is really amazing, but you never get really invested, you never really know what’s going on, who’s who, why anyone is doing anything….that’s actually not always a bad thing, sometimes too much exposition kills a movie, but the point is that it never picks up any momentum. It is like a bright and shiny piece of jewelry that you love to look at—it grabs your attention at first, but after a while, once you realize it doesn’t move or breathe or talk back to you, you realize it’s not as great as you thought it was to begin with.
But I’ll admit I did love to look at this film. The art direction is wonderful, the costumes are great, the casting all around is excellent. Marion Cotillard, fresh off her Oscar win for Best Actress, holds her own with Depp as Dillinger’s love interest. Bale, however, disappoints a bit and needs to find his groove again. My boy Billy Crudup again will go underappreciated as FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover. All the supporting roles are well cast, especially the gangster hoods, who all really look the part.
I can always do without Mann’s handheld camera style, but I got used to it after a while. But, overall, I was truly surprised and somewhat disappointed with the lack of substance here. Whether it was the truly simplistic dialogue or the lack of depth to the characters, Public Enemies plays flat and the only thing that saves it is the beauty and appeal of Johnny Depp, Movie Star. Hey, we all need something to believe in.