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Melvin Purvis

Melvin Purvis

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Movies about Depression-era gangsters often resemble boys playing with toy guns: You see the spark of 'this is cool!,' but you don't sense a purpose.

The underconceived "Public Enemies" suffers from that lack of drive, though Johnny Depp is so urgent and charismatic as John Dillinger, he provides enough firepower to make the film legit.Not that "Enemies" hasn't got a refreshingly mature sensibility, and its connection between Dillinger and celebrity is legitimate, if only tepidly explored.

But director Michael Mann, working from a book by Bryan Burrough, is a filmmaker whose lyricism needs to be tethered to more than just theme.

When it is, he clicks ("Collateral," "The Insider," "The Last of the Mohicans").

When it isn't ("Miami Vice," "Ali," "Heat"), he shoots blanks.Dillinger—fresh from a 1933 prison break in his home state of Indiana—lives large off the bank loot he steals in the region around Chicago.

His exploits and nightclub lifestyle rile J.

Edgar Hoover (a cartoonish Billy Crudup), who puts steely G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) in charge of the Bureau of Investigation's Dillinger task force.Between jail escapes and robberies, Dillinger romances hat-check girl ­Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

As Purvis brings in reinforcements and closes in, the gangster is a tough guy right through to his spectacularly conspicuous end outside the Biograph Theater.Like earlier big-screen versions of this story, "Enemies" purports to dissect its subject's meaning to Americans of the ­early '30s.

But one gorgeously shot tableau of flashbulbs and fame—and Dillinger's famous jailhouse "press conference," in which he takes questions while draping an arm around law officers—has to suffice.

This isn't "Bonnie and Clyde"; psychoanalyzing Dillinger and his times doesn't interest Mann.

The gunfights, especially a great grandstanding one in Wisconsin, take center stage.Yet whenever Depp isn't onscreen, the movie drifts.

Bale's blank-eyed turn doesn't register, thus robbing the story of the back-and-forth it needs.

And ­Cotillard (an Oscar winner for "La Vie en Rose") is simply a moll forced to utter banal lines like, "They're either going to catch or kill you, and I don't want to be around for that."Which leaves Depp holding the bag.

Luckily, it's another effortless move for a guy who can do no wrong.

What other performer of his generation could be so iconic between weirdo turns as Sweeney Todd, Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter, and pull it off? Audiences connect with this actor the way "Enemies" implies Dillinger and the public did.

Only because it's Depp do we care whether he lives or dies.
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