Andy Bockelman: ‘Public Enemies’ is a welcome but wavery gangster picture
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
Lenght: 140 minutes
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard
Craig — Ah, to be back in the days when fedoras were still in style and radio was the top communication medium. Of course, in between trips to the soup line, you had to be sure not to run into some “Public Enemies.”
In 1933, one man has his own method of beating the Great Depression, and he does it with flair. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a bank robber of the highest caliber, wielding a Tommy gun in banks across America and capturing the favor of the nation’s people. But the country’s lawmen are not so easily won over, particularly fledgling FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup).
Hoover appoints Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to the task of bringing in wanted man Dillinger, who has had little trouble evading capture during his crime spree. But as Dillinger and his latest flame (Marion Cotillard) are about to learn, Purvis has a much greater drive to see him behind bars.
Still, Dillinger’s allies are many in the crime world, and it’s a battle of wills to see who will wind up on top of the endless melee.
Depp struts with all the confidence of Captain Jack Sparrow but with none of the drunken stumble or the overdone boozy accent. Dillinger’s forceful yet finessed approach to achieving what he wants is easily interpreted by the actor.
This is nearly matched by Bale’s bit as trigger happy but nonetheless intelligent agent Purvis, the man who shot down Dillinger’s fellow bank robber “Pretty Boy” Floyd (Channing Tatum).
Crudup may not get much action as Hoover – well-known for pulling the puppet strings rather than dirtying his own hands – but his imitation of the illustrious bureau head in his younger years is nothing short of remarkable.
Cotillard pulls her weight as Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette, while Stephen Graham is remarkably vicious as notorious criminal “Baby Face” Nelson, who collaborates with Dillinger frequently and keeps his own noteworthy tally marks for agents gunned down.
Director Michael Mann has a good feel for the crime drama with the huge group effort “Heat” one of his crowning accomplishments. There is roughly the same size cast here, but the focus is very poorly distributed.
Yes, we want to see a movie about John Dillinger, but when you introduce actors like Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi and Lili Taylor in such miniscule roles, it gets frustrating.
Depending on your knowledge of the crime era of the early 1930s, you may question both the true strength of the web of criminal networks created by Mann and co-screenwriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, as well as the very sequence of events.
This doesn’t translate well into the movie’s plot, which is riddled with as many inconsistencies as Purvis’s car has bullet holes.
But this is where the film’s strengths lie – Mann orchestrates some masterfully good shootouts and gripping chase sequences. Combined with the tantalizing lighting and artistically desaturated color tones of the cinematography, it’s enough to transport the audience to the days of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney.
But it’s a small wonder that the classic gangster films were only half the length of their descendant, and the talky portions ultimately do it in.
Altogether, “Public Enemies” is a confounding movie.
On one hand, Depp’s coolness almost makes everything work, but the bloated storyline almost brings about an implosion, as the entire film nearly collapses in on itself.
Just like the stock market greed that led to Dillinger and company being elevated to criminal status, you take your risks when you put in your money.
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