Public Enemies -- Film Review


Michael Mann's John Dillinger movie "Public Enemies" is slow to heat up and never quite comes to a boil. The elements certainly are here with the always charismatic Johnny Depp as the Depression-era bank robber and, in some quarters, idolized Robin Hood. And Marion Cotillard, off her Oscar win, plays his lady friend. But Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman never crack the meaning of John Dillinger.

The film veers between fact and legend, sticking mostly with facts, but still is unable to bring its protagonist into focus as either an amiable sociopath or a true anti-hero. He winds up being just a guy who robs banks, which probably is all he ever was, so why such a lavish production? John Milius accomplished as much if not more with "Dillinger" in 1973 at the cost of probably two scenes from "Public Enemies."

Because there's nothing in the marketplace right now like "Public Enemies," Universal should recoup its costs between the domestic and international boxoffice. But the film lacks the juice promised by the teaming of such extraordinary filmmakers with a cast as large as a Hooverville encampment.

There is both too much going on here and not enough: multiple jail breaks, frequent bank robberies, deadly shootouts with G-men, characters introduced then lost track of. You'd probably have to read the source material, a book by Bryan Burrough, to understand the significance of many scenes.

The expected big moments are here: Dillinger breaks out of "escape proof" Crown Point, Ind., jail, driving off in the female sheriff's (Lili Taylor) own car. The shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin is a fiasco for the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, which allowed Dillinger to escape.

Incensed G-man Melvin Purvis (a stoic Christian Bale) figures Dillinger will foolishly head back to Chicago, so his men watch the apartment of Dillinger's half-French dame Billie Frechette (Cotillard) around the clock. She still manages to elude them, but Purvis' men finally do arrest her while Dillinger drives away from the scene without anyone noticing him! This sets up the famed betrayal of the "Lady in Red," who actually wore a yellow dress.

If the above feels like a disjointed synopsis, the film is even more of a jumble. Too many of the era's personalities parade before the cameras -- look, there's "Pretty Boy" Floyd (Channing Tatum) getting shot at long range by Purvis; there's famed bad guys Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) and "Baby Face" Nelson (Stephen Graham) plotting jobs with Dillinger; there's crime boss Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) growing tired of Dillinger's juvenile shenanigans; there's young J. Edgar Hoover (a stiff Billy Crudup) just getting his feet wet!

You can't keep them all straight, and a muddy soundtrack doesn't help. Depp had his own sound technician, according to the end credits, but you still can't hear him. Between mumbled lines and busy music cues, much of the film's dialogue is indistinct.

The anticipated points are made about how Dillinger and Hoover carefully track their own publicity. The Dillinger-Frechette love match is built up into something it probably never was. Indeed, the woman with whom Dillinger fatefully attends his last picture show -- Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski) -- is believed to be his new girlfriend at the time.

What's missing is an investigation into character. Who are all these people? Why do they matter to us now? These people with the colorful monikers were the rock stars of their era. But onscreen, they come off as vapid, two-bit hoods. They're smarter than the cops, their jailers and the Feds, but that isn't saying much in those days.

Depp's performance is more than credible, but biography seems to place him in a straightjacket. He might be too faithful to the real John Dillinger, which doesn't allow him to create a character of the imagination, someone who will connect with us today.

The great Depression-era bank-robbing movie "Bonnie and Clyde," to which "Public Enemies" undoubtedly will be compared, keeps the focus narrow and intense and somehow spoke to its counterculture era. "Public Enemies" sprawls everywhere with so many characters and winds up being mostly a history lesson unrelated to anything in the zeitgeist.

Mann oversees top-drawer work by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, production designer Nathan Crowley and tremendous second-unit personnel. The strategies, setups and shootouts are smoothly staged, but the human element goes missing.

Los Angeles Film Festival (Universal Pictures)
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