Movie Reviews

Film Review: “Public Enemies”

(Universal. 2 hours, 23 minutes. Rated R for gangster violence and some language. Directed by Michael Mann.) Johnny Depp (John Dillinger), Christian Bale (Melvin Purvis), Marion Cotillard (Billie Frechette), Channing Tatum (Pretty Boy Floyd), Stephen Graham (Baby Face Nelson), Giovanni Ribisi (Alvin Karpis), Stephen Dorff (Homer Van Meter), John Ortiz (Frank Nitti), Billy Crudup (J. Edgar Hoover), Stephen Lang (Winstead), Emilie De Ravin (Anna Patzke), Leelee Sobieski (Polly Hamilton). Music by Elliot Goldenthal.

Director and co-screenwriter Mann is no stranger to a crime story (Miami Vice, etc.). He tries to be all things to his famous subject, Depression-era bank robber John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934); he succeeds only in part. He’s got a great star in Depp, of course, but somebody (Mann, Depp, or both) decided to play Dillinger low-key and subsequently let much of the air out of the whole enterprise. The audience goes into this wanting to root for the (supposedly) flamboyant gangster who had a short, wild, crazy year in the headlines before being gunned down in the alleyway of Chicago’s Biograph Theater at age 31.

Staying ahead of Christian Bale’s stoic G-man Purvis and Billy Crudup’s passionate Hoover, busting into banks and wooing hat-check girl Billie (last year’s Best Actress Oscar-winner Cotillard), Depp gives us Dillinger’s playful and romantic sides, but still keeps the viewer at a distance. More accessible was the folksy performance of the late Warren Oates in the 1973 low-budget Dillinger, also flawed but more watchable, with a young Richard Dreyfuss as a memorable, wacky Baby Face Nelson. Note to Mann: if this was the Depression, get me a time machine. Everyone here looks great, dresses fantastically, and even though the real outlaw busted into rural banks in small towns for the most part, here Depp gets to knock over marble palaces with gilt-trimmed teller cages and mood lighting. Also, what was with the sound mix? I couldn’t understand the dialogue through much of this.

The movie’s centerpiece, the famous Little Bohemia raid in Wisconsin, is handled well, but action scenes come few and far between here. Mann shoots on HD video now instead of film, which makes the blacks really black and the white flashes of gunfire really white. My favorite scene comes near the end: Mann shows Depp and his betrayer, the “Lady in Red,” watching the 1934 movie Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph prior to his not-unexpected demise. Depp wordlessly ponders his fate compared to that of movie-gangster Clark Gable in a well-handled scene which also reminds us of how appealing Gable, William Powell, and the beautiful Myrna Loy were (Loy leaves Cotillard in the dust). Don’t get me wrong: Depp’s still one of Hollywood’s best-looking men at 46, and the movie’s not bad. I just wanted more life from his Dillinger, and I think his “Captain Jack” fans will too.

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