Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Review: "Public Enemies"

"Public Enemies" is a slick and stylish drama about John Dillinger and a few other infamous gangsters of the Great Depression era, and the G-men who hunted them down. I'm not sure it really adds up to much, but director Michael Mann ("Heat," "The Insider") spews out such a dense and enchanting cloud of period atmosphere, we don't mind so much that the story occasionally gets lost in the fog.

Johnny Depp gives a fairly straitlaced (for him) performance as Dillinger, playing the Indianapolis-born bank robber as man who (in his own words) likes spending money, movies, fast cars and women. He has an almost icy confidence, brushing aside lawmen and their schemes to catch him as if they were minor annoyances.

The script, by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, strives to preserve the bulk of historical accuracy regarding Dillinger, but takes a few liberties. For instance, there's a scene right at the height of the manhunt for him when Dillinger is dropping a girl off to get her waitressing license, which happens to be at Chicago police headquarters. So he decides to go in and wander around -- even popping in at the FBI office dedicated to capturing him.

Such a thing is part of Dillinger's legend, and adds to the cinematic version of Dillinger as a man who thought he could always skate by on guts and smarts. And Dillinger really did hide out in the open, bribing police to protect him and making little attempt to conceal his identify from everyday folks.

One day while enjoying the fruits of a recent heist at a nightclub, he spots Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). While having their first dance, she lets him know she is part American Indian and a mere coat-check girl, facts which put some men off. He returns her honesty by telling her he's John Dillinger, public enemy numero uno.

Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI man assigned to bring Dillinger in. It's not really a mano-e-mano type of relationship like Elliot Ness vs. Al Capone in "The Untouchables." Bale and Depp share only a single scene together, after Dillinger has already been captured (temporarily) by some other lawmen, and taunts Purvis for killing Pretty Boy Floyd with a shot in the back.

Much of the movie's charm comes in crisply-edited depictions of actual Dillinger exploits, such as when he escaped from a Crown Point, Indiana, jail with the use of a wooden gun. There's a terrific scene where Dillinger, having stolen the female sheriff's personal Ford, is idling at a stoplight as a small army of soldiers guards the area. Mann just languidly cuts between Depp, the red light and the soldiers, and lets the moment simmer.

Other capers are just as enjoyable, though clearly pure fiction. One bit has Dillinger and his gang sitting in a movie theater when an announcement comes up about them, warning that Dillinger could be sitting right next to you, and imploring the audience to look around.

The G-men parts of the movie aren't nearly as enticing, with Billy Crudup as a power-hungry J. Edgar Hoover using the press to garner support for increased federal crime fighting power. There's also a subplot about Dillinger getting spurned by the organized mob that's mostly dead end.

At 139 minutes, "Public Enemies" is a bit long-winded. It may not be anything more than a good cops-and-robbers yarn, but the parts that do sing, sing brightly and smart.

3 stars

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