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Cops and guns are best part of ‘Public Enemies’

For all its lush costumes and game cast members, the movie has nothing new to tell us about famed gangster John Dillinger.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

There’s a great gag in the comedy “Murder by Death,” where blind butler Alec Guinness takes an empty tureen out to the dinner table; when he returns to the kitchen, he excoriates the cook for sending him out with “a bowl of HOT NOTHING!”

“Hot nothing” is what director and co-writer Michael Mann is dishing out to audiences with the much-anticipated “Public Enemies”; for all its lush costumes (by Colleen Atwood) and game cast members, the movie has nothing new to tell us about John Dillinger, the birth of the FBI or the Depression that we haven’t seen in countless better films. Even as a valentine to gangster movies, “Public Enemies” leaves you wishing that you, like Dillinger on the last night of his life, were watching “Manhattan Melodrama” instead.

Mann’s love of process certainly shines through from the first frames, where we see Dillinger (Johnny Depp) returning to prison — only it turns out that he’s actually masterminded an escape for his gang. In the same way that Mann’s “Heat” comes alive only in its complicated heist set-ups, it’s the activities of the characters — bank robberies, dragnets — that pop even when the characters themselves don’t.

If Mann weren’t constantly operating in a bubble of testosterone, I’d think he might have a great musical in him. As it is, his choreographed “numbers” generally involve cars, guns, safes and cops, and they’re the best parts of “Public Enemies.”

In between these moments, we’re stuck with two uninspired storylines: One deals with Dillinger’s nationwide crime spree and wooing of coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, barely trying to cover up her French accent), while the other concerns Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and his headline-grabbing pursuit of mobsters, which fits perfectly with J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his goal of creating a federal crime-busting organization.

Depp tackles the role with gusto, but when Dillinger tells Billie that he likes women, whiskey and movies, that’s about as much character analysis as the movie bothers to give us. And since we all know how and when Dillinger met his end, it would have been nice to have something to counteract the movie’s automatic lack of suspense.

“Public Enemies” marks the second movie this summer in which Christian Bale has gotten stuck playing the less interesting of two leads; here’s hoping he soon finds a movie that doesn’t hide him in anyone else’s shadow.

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Mann received a great deal of acclaim for his decision to shoot “Collateral” on video so that he could take advantage of the medium’s richness of black hues. For a movie set almost entirely at night, that made perfect sense, but video makes all the daytime sequences of “Public Enemies” look harsh and cheap: Every time sun streams through a window or a character is standing in front of headlights, it’s a distraction.

Michael Mann has fervent followers, and they’ll no doubt embrace “Public Enemies” and laud it as another highlight in his body of work. Those not in his cult won’t find much in this movie to convince them to sign up.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .