Public Enemies, Michael Mann, 140 mins, (15)

Johnny Depp underacts and Christian Bale lacks charisma in the much-hyped 1930s gangster biopic
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The Independent Culture

There's arguably no theme in cinema quite as fundamental, as primal, as Cops and Robbers – the genre that Michael Mann has always returned to. Mann loves gangsters, but not as Martin Scorsese does: for Mann, criminal and cop are inseparable, yin and yang, neither truly functioning unless both are edging towards their big showdown.

A Scorsese or perhaps a David Fincher might plausibly have made a film about the 1930s gangster John Dillinger that focused on Dillinger alone. But a Mann gangster has no being without the law on his heels; to Mann, Dillinger is nothing without a pursuing army of G-Men, under the command of a mean-eyed monomaniac.

Oddly, though, in Public Enemies Mann has made a film in which Dillinger himself doesn't quite register, either as centre of attention or as personality, yet nor do the lawmen. There isn't the same diamond-sharp focus on counterparts as in Mann's Heat, nor does Johnny Depp's anti-hero have the same implacable menace as Tom Cruise's hitman in Collateral. (Cruise more satanic than Depp? You read right.)

Maybe that's the film's counter-intuitive selling point: Depp underacts. The droll barnstormer of Pirates of the Caribbean and Tim Burton's films downplays it so far that we never know who Dillinger is, other than a cool principle of crime personified. He's a brutal, cold-eyed man, but also incorporates elements of dashing adventurer (he vaults over a bank barrier in gravity-mocking slo-mo), of raffish wit (told of his prison transfer, he quips, "I have absolutely nothing I want to do in Indiana") and of matinee idol, a kissing bandit that his moll Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) simply can't resist, especially when he shoves aside some inopportune Joe Public.

Yet the one image I retained was of a taciturn soldier of crime with a slicked forelock flopping from his brim. Nor is his adversary quite flesh and blood: Christian Bale's FBI agent Melvin Purvis is a basilisk-cold tracking machine, but, given Bale's indifferent charisma, more a walking sheriff's badge than a person.

Mann prides himself on research, and you can well believe that everything there is to know about Dillinger is contained in the script (Ronan Bennett, Mann and Ann Biderman, based on Bryan Burrough's book). But I'm damned if I followed much of it, or knew who most of the characters were: they don't stop to announce themselves, too busy reaching for gats or jumping on to the running boards of fine old automobiles.

You do, however, get an unusual impression of the 1930s in their nowness. As is his wont, Mann shoots in high-definition video, here counteracting that sense we usually get in historical films, that we're looking from afar at a reconstruction of a distant world. Instead, HD brings the intensity of instantaneous coverage, as if the action were being downloaded live to screen from 70 years ago.

This is especially vivid in the shoot-outs: Mann's trademark is the gunfight as free-form percussion symphony, bullets blanging off car bonnets. In Public Enemies, the word "gunfire" has rarely seemed so apposite – guns explode in blasts of flame, most dynamically in a sequence staged deep in a forest at night.

Yet Dante Spinotti's photography can be ugly and distracting: the glare of daylight is electronically abrasive, and while the cameras whip round with fevered agility, the nerviness brings an odd sketchbook quality. The result feels somehow less like a movie than a video run-through for one, just as Mann's flat, telegraphic TV film LA Takedown was essentially a filmed storyboard for the fully realised Heat.

This wouldn't matter if Mann were entirely attempting to go Dogme-style and expunging every trace of Hollywood rhetoric from his film. But this isn't so – particularly when it comes to Elliot Goldenthal's routinely lush score, pumped up whenever we need to be reminded that there's romantic heat between Dillinger and Billie.

Public Enemies is frustrating because so much of it is good. While there's little sense that Mann is interested in strong formal individual images, when he does trouble to frame them, they're great: an Edward Hopper interior when a cop closes in on Baby Face Nelson, or the long grey prison walls at the start, complete with chain gang shuffling in mint-humbug stripes.

There are good performances too, particularly Billy Crudup's J Edgar Hoover, bull-necked and officious, and Peter Gerety as Dillinger's flamboyantly outraged attorney. And the person who truly imparts some warmth is Marion Cotillard. Casually disguising her French accent, she gives Billie a dainty, sexy playfulness. Even if Depp's muted playing effectively diffuses any sense of grand passion between the couple, Cotillard heats the film up, often with her smile alone – and that testifies to a real degree of proper old-school star quality. The rest? A dark, crowded battlefield on which men in hats fight men in hats, till the last bullet hits its target.

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