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July 1, 2009

Charisma propels latest Dillinger tale

Anyone doubting the role that charisma plays in the movies need look no further than "Public Enemies," an old-fashion gangster picture built on simple star power.

Anyone doubting the role that charisma plays in the movies need look no further than "Public Enemies," an old-fashion 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 re-interpretation 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's 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 bat 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 plays the hat-check girl Dillinger fell for, a woman who questions him but still is drawn to him after learning what he does.

"What do you want?"

"Everything. Right now."

The film is gripping and efficient, introducing other "public enemies" such as 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's chief sexuality without it diminishing his reputation for ruthlessness or simple competence. He grabbed the headlines but he got a dirty job done, too.

But historic and entertaining though "Public Enemies" is, if we're moved, it's all due to the guys Mann paid the big bucks to. Depp and Bale, squared off as equals, make compelling enemies with charisma to burn.

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