Public Enemies opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle

Rightly or wrongly, movies memorializing real-life criminals are lauded even as they ignore or vilify those who bring them to justice. Think of the films associated with Al Capone, Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, Bugsy Siegel and even serial killers such as Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer. On the other hand, lawmen such as Pat and Buck Garrett, Bill Tilghman, Bat Masterson and Delf “Jelly” Bryce are forgotten figures, and film celebrations of Wyatt Earp (who was, in fact, a sketchy character) and Eliot Ness are exceptions to the rule.

The title of director Michael Mann’s Public Enemiesthe term dates to 1930, when the city of Chicago put out a list of fugitive gangstersmay as well be The Story of John Dillinger. Set in the 1930s, it follows Dillinger (Johnny Depp) during his string of notorious bank robberies, gunfights and jailhouse escapes alongside fellow miscreants Baby Face Nelson, John “Red” Hamilton and Homer Van Meter. Equal time is also devoted to Dillinger’s relationship with his torch-singer moll, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

Following the formula of Heat, his superb 1995 crime drama, Mann juxtaposes lawmen with their lawless quarry, separating them by the thinnest of moral dividing lines — indeed, the film’s title eventually assumes an ambiguous air. Here, Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the G-Man assigned by Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, superb) with the task of tracking and apprehending or killing Dillinger and his cohorts. Dillinger is cast as a violent, cunning criminal, but also a PR-conscious celebrity keenly aware of his populist appeal among the Depression-era public. He kills lawmen to facilitate his dark deeds but eschews suggestions that he expand his enterprise into kidnapping for ransom, surmising that the public would not support such crimes, thereby jeopardizing his reputation and his ability to keep a modest profile.

Purvis, on the other hand, is a straitlaced ramrod who nonetheless accedes to orders from above that he engage in what we today call “enhanced techniques,” which includes treacherous shootouts and brutalbut ineffectualinterrogations.

Mann indulges in procedural glitz from the film’s opening scene, rendering his action set pieces in exhausting, often splendid detail. He has elevated the cinematic firefight to the level of high art, and while many directors shirk from shooting at night, Mann and his newfound penchant for high-definition filmmaking revels in it (as he did in Collateral, Miami Vice, and the final act of Heat). Of special note, his recreation of the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, shot on location in Wisconsin, is masterful.

What keeps Public Enemies from being a masterpiece is a peculiar lack of emotional accessibility to the key characters. This is partly the fault of the filmmaker and partly of the actors. Bale never strays from the no-nonsense lawman, while Depp, in particular, plays Dillinger with a detached sense of aloof calm, rarely cracking his visage to reveal any tumult brewing underneath (a scene when he witnesses the arrest of Frechette being the lone, welcome exception). At the same time, Mann ignores opportunities to explore his subjects’ psyches. Although the majority of the film is notable for its historical accuracy, Mann overlooks the crude plastic surgery Dillinger underwent two months before his death, a potential interpretative device for illustrating the increasingly desperate robber’s growing isolation from his public, his friends and even the Chicago crime syndicate that once harbored him. Instead, Mann concocts a mildly amusing but obvious scene in which, on the eve of his death, a merely bespectacled and mustached Dillinger strolls into the Chicago police squad room dedicated to his capture, even stopping to ask agents hovering around a radio the score of the Cubs baseball game.

Public Enemies is less a biopic than a glossy, stylish elegy. However, the film ultimately is more a tribute to Mann’s own craftsmanship than it is to the doomed Dillingeror the men who captured him.