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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"PUBLIC ENEMIES"


Johnny Depp gives one of the best performances of his career as John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies
 
One of the key scenes in Michael Mann's Public Enemies comes when members of the press interview the newly-apprehended bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) in an Indiana prison. They ask things like how long it takes him to pull a knockoff, then laugh good-naturedly as he delivers his charmingly dry answers. Hard as it is to believe, there was a time in this country when some folks almost idolized bank robbers. Long before TV, the internet, and other forms of instant communication, people like Dillinger were known more through their legends than through their reality - a fact that gave many of them an appealing larger-than-life quality. The Dillinger in this movie thrives on such infamy; he knows Great Depression has made citizens despise banks as much as he does. In embracing this idea, Michael Mann largely shrugs off traditional gangster picture elements to give us a psychological portrait of a guy who is, to paraphrase a Fall Out Boy lyric, in love with his own sins.

The story opens in 1933, with a daring prison escape. Once Dillinger's associates are all on the outside, he begins to get back to the business of robbing banks, while also entertaining a proposal to rob a train carrying over a million bucks in bank money. It doesn't take long for him to become Public Enemy #1, and J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) decides to take action. Hoover brings in FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) with the single objective of bringing Dillinger down by any means necessary. It doesn't take long for the agent to realize that the best way to track the robber down is through Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a young French woman trying to make her way in America, whom Dillinger has begun romancing.

Public Enemies is, at its core, a fascinating portrait of criminal narcissism. As played by Johnny Depp, Dillinger is a living, breathing tall tale. Word of his exploits has traveled far and wide. While some are appalled by his criminal actions, others are oddly attracted to his anti-hero persona. It is this very quality that lets him walk Chicago streets without a disguise. It's also what draws Billie to him. She's trying to get somewhere in life, and he's already wildly successful, no matter how illicit his trade may be. This sort of mythic makes Dillinger intensely confident in his ability to not only rob banks, but also to elude his pursuers. He's paid off enough cops and has enough muscle to make him feel essentially invincible, which means he can take ridiculous chances, such as returning to Chicago after escaping that Indiana prison to find Billie, knowing that every single cop in the city is looking for him. The movie suggests that his confidence is also directly responsible for his demise, since no one can get away with everything forever.

I like a good crime drama as much as anyone. Public Enemies has some really good chases, shootouts, and escapes. Yet it was the more intimate stuff that compelled me most. Johnny Depp gives a really terrific performance as Dillinger, effectively mixing hard-to-resist charm with an undeniable cold-blooded ruthlessness. Much has been made of Depp's "brave" choices in his performances. While that's true, I'm glad he didn't resort to any Jack Sparrow-esque gimmickry here. Depp gets to the heart of the character, knowing that he's playing a guy who gets off on getting away with stuff.

Bale's character is not as fully developed - we know little about Purvis other than how he does his job - but at least the actor has the authority to make us believe he could bring down Depp's self-assured criminal. The movie contrasts the two characters' styles, with Purvis taking a very calculated approach to hunting the more flamboyant Dillinger down. That's part of what makes the cat-and-mouse aspect of Public Enemies so riveting; it's almost a contest to see whether slow and steady can beat out fast and erratic in a showdown.

The movie looks great, save for a few moments where you can really tell that it was shot on digital video (the images sometimes look a little blurry when people move). The ease and speed of DV has allowed Mann to capitalize on the urgency of things. His camera often follows characters while running, or ducking during gunfire, or escaping through a forest. One of the things I like most about Public Enemies is that it's got a lot of flavor. The cinematography combined with superb production design allows us to be absorbed in the period setting.

Public Enemies depicts many of the seminal moments in Dillinger's history - his robberies, his tenuous connections to Frank Nitti and other organized crime syndicates, his eventual downfall - and it does these things well. On those counts, this is a very enjoyable film. That said, what I believe makes it special is that it really explores the concept that one has to be a little stuck on oneself to commit a crime in the first place. A fundamental part of doing it is believing that you can outsmart those who may try to catch you. The John Dillinger we see here knows how to romance a woman, charm a reporter, and fascinate a local. He's not afraid to use those things to his advantage. This is a really solid, entertaining character study.

( 1/2 out of four)


Public Enemies is rated R for gangster violence and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 23 minutes.

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