Director Michael Mann is a stylish, brooding perfectionist who makes movies about men who are stylish, brooding perfectionists.
Mann's subjects are often cops or criminals, but though he carries a camera instead of a gun, you can feel the way Mann empathizes with and admires their terse professionalism.
The Next Big Score is probably a lot like your Next Big Movie - the script, the cast, the crew, the locations. Whatever the reason, Mann excels at dramatizing elaborate criminal schemes and the equally elaborate strategies of the men sworn to stop them.
It's a theme he's visited repeatedly, in "Miami Vice" (both film and television), "Crime Story," "Manhunter," "Heat" and now "Public Enemies."
His latest features Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, whose bank-robbing spree made him a pulpy, populist hero during the Great Depression, when banks were not as beloved as they are now.
Dillinger's exploits had a cinematic, bigger-than-life arc - he staged daring jail breaks, tore across the plains in V8 hot rods robbing one bank after another, all while wearing sharp suits and wielding a Thompson submachine gun. (If there's a more cinematic weapon than the tommy gun, I've yet to see it, and the "Public Enemies" sound/prop/photo technicians do a great job making the gun freshly formidable.)
It was the gilded age of media-branded criminals - Baby Face Nelson (a Dillinger associate), Pretty Boy Floyd - and it saw the not-coincidental rise of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) uses the success of the tabloid criminals to make a case for the expansion of his growing FBI fiefdom, billed as a new kind of law enforcement, staffed by formally educated professionals.
Alas, his newfangled Ivy League G-men haven't the tactical experience or the backbone to apprehend men like Dillinger. So argues one of Hoover's top agents, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). He's appointed by Hoover to stop Dillinger, and makes the case that he can't succeed unless he's allowed to bring in some hard-nosed lawmen (including Mann regular Stephen Lang) from Texas and Oklahoma.
So the classic Mann setup is formed - smart and dedicated men on either side of the law, working with cool precision to destroy the other.
There are other familiar Mann figures here - the woman who both loves and fear the obsessions of her man. Here it's Marion Cotillard as Dillinger's lover, a fellow social outcast for whom money means access to speakeasy society.
Class resentment is a theme; the script positions Dillinger as an outlaw "Seabiscuit," capturing the imagination of a beleaguered country, but Mann leaves it underdeveloped.
It's one of a dozen pithy ideas floating around "Public Enemies" half-formed. Like Dillinger as doomed individualist - he was dimed-out by the Chicago syndicate, which saw that his small-time freelancing attracted unwanted federal attention.
Mann also mocks Hoover's expansionism (the title is a double entendre), and his movie warns against unchecked federal power, which pointedly takes the form of high-tech surveillance and then torture (though in "Enemies," torture actually works).
Purvis, partly because he tolerates such excess, loses a bit of his soul in apprehending Dillinger, while Dillinger himself is elevated to tragic mystic. He spends his last hours in Chicago's Biograph theater watching a Clark Gable gangster movie, a scene that fuses notoriety with celebrity, and hints that Dillinger sensed the squad of executioners who waited outside.
It doesn't all work, but quite a bit of it does, like the strangely lyrical final scene. There are enough good moments to please Mann's fans, but the "Transformers" crowd may be lost.