Public Enemies Movie Review
John Dillinger, America’s first Public Enemy Number One, is the subject of the new film by Michael Mann (“Heat,” Miami Vice”). The powerful director, who’s great in exploring criminal minds, tried to delve into the psyche of the Depression-era outlaw in “Public Enemies.” The result is a less than compelling film that is a bit tedious to watch, especially the first half.
I really want “Public Enemies” to be great! The players behind this film attract high expectations. It’s Depp! It’s Bale! It’s Mann! But as it turned out, Academy-award winner Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) became the savior of the movie.
Johnny Depp, one of our most gifted contemporary actors, stars as Dillinger, a bank robber nicknamed “jackrabbit” for his many narrow getaways from police. The first time we see Dillinger, he’s trying to help his crew escape from Indiana State Prison.
“Public Enemies” favors to tell the life story of Dillinger by highlighting his infamous escapes such as the Lake County Jail breakout in Crown Point, Indiana, and his evasion from the law at the Little Bohemia travel lodge in northern Wisconsin in April 1934.
All the breakout scenes are directed with such flair and style, that I wish Mann and company devoted the same level of confidence in developing the characters. Yes, the characters are based on real-life people but if I have to go to Wikipedia to understand their individual narratives, then I don’t think the filmmakers succeeded in telling a gripping film.
As Dillinger’s popularity increases, J. Edgar Hoover’s (the entertaining Billy Crudup) impatience also escalates. The head of the Bureau of Investigation wants to capitalize on capturing Dillinger in order to elevate his division into the national police force that would later become the FBI. Not only did Hoover made Dillinger America’s first Public Enemy Number One, he also sent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the dashing “Clark Gable of the FBI” to capture him.
Later, Dillinger’s gang will include the likes of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and robber/kidnapper Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi). Time and again, they have outwitted and outgunned Purvis’ men in wild chases and shootouts. Only when Purvis imports a crew of lawmen from the Dallas bureau, is he able to close in on his prey. But Dillinger’s biggest downfall is falling in love with Billie Frechette (the scene stealing Cotillard), an ambitious but loyal Chicago gal who will become the outlaw’s greatest passion.
Written by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, largely based on Bryan Burrough’s book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34,” the biggest crime the filmmakers committed is, except for Frechette, they failed to make us empathize with the characters. You will not care how Dillinger gets apprehended, or how Purvis catches him.
But the journey to the film’s conclusion is still worth taking because of Mann’s visceral style and the captivating cinematography of Dante Spinotti. Shot in digital, every frame is staged beautifully, invoking the scene’s emotions.
The performances are superb with Depp trying every trick to bring compassion to his character. The actor is a rock star and he acutely chooses roles to reflect that status. From a rock star pirate (“Pirates of the Caribbean” films) to a rock star serial killer (“Sweeney Todd”) to a rock star gangster with “Public Enemies,” Depp embodies the persona of each character even if the material is not as strong.
There’s a haunting scene towards the end of the movie when Dillinger visits a Chicago police station. Inside, the disguised criminal invades the kingdom of the law that wants to punish him. Depp plays this scene with equal parts apprehension and disgust.
Bale returns as a hound of justice, only this time, he trades in his Batman latex costume for a period garb. His character is also not as well-written, so Purvis is overshadowed by the events and the story.
I would have loved to have seen a film analyzing our love for these gangsters. Why, after nearly eight decades, do we still care for these outlaws? Could it be that we find in these criminals a symbol to divert us from our everyday problems? Because they took from the banks the monies the banks had wrongly taken from us?
Another interesting angle would have been Purvis himself. Known as “The Man Who Shot John Dillinger,” Purvis’ fame was eventually resented by Hoover and he took him out of the FBI. Years later, Purvis killed himself. I learned this factoid from Wikipedia.
But like a footnote to a very interesting story, “Public Enemies” settled on the cat-and-mouse game that Dillinger and Purvis played. There are many great nuggets peppered throughout the film, but the movie as a whole fell below greatness. I’m still recommending this film for its performances, Mann’s direction, and the captivating history that changed the laws in America forever.
And for that, “Public Enemies” gets 3 Dillinger vs. Purvis kisses
Country: United States
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