At Quality 16 and Showcase
3 out of 5 stars
In the early 1930s, the nation’s greatest fear was not the depression, nor even fear itself, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. America’s greatest threat was a man named John Dillinger, or as the FBI called him, Public Enemy Number One.
“Public Enemies” is director Michael Mann’s (“Miami Vice”) attempt to capture the characters of Dillinger (Johnny Depp, “Sweeney Todd”) and the man who dedicated his life to bringing him to justice, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, “Dark Knight”). But Mann gets a little too caught up in the action of the movie to fully grasp its central characters.
While there are plenty of machine-gun fights, car chases and stake outs, the movie leaves the audience feeling empty. Gunfire and bank robberies are exciting, but at the same time, it’s important to understand the men behind them.
As far as criminals go, Dillinger wasn’t such a bad guy, and he was able to outsmart the police force. While the movie does make a quick reference to the fact that he let all the customers keep their money — even giving some of it back — it never emphasizes the creativity he showed during his robberies. This is surprising for a film about a man who once robbed a bank by pretending that he was filming a movie there.
Not only does the movie miss its mark with Dillinger, but in the time dedicated to fight scenes, it loses the opportunity to develop the supporting characters who are also interesting historical figures. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, “Watchmen”) comes off as just an angry man in the film. But in real life, he was a man obsessed with power and had a gift for manipulating the media. Bale as Purvis is little more than a costume-less batman. Marion Cotillard (“A Good Year”), however, is particularly good as Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s girlfriend. It’s only through her character that any sort of personal depth is added to Dillinger. Through their relationship, it’s possible to see more of a human being and less of a calculating, gun-carrying machine.
Perhaps the flaws of the film are understandable. At 140 minutes, “Public Enemies” is already a long movie, and it’s difficult to establish a subtle balance between fact and action. The plot is not particularly surprising, but Mann does manage to keep the audience wondering — not about what will happen (as the plot is fairly predictable), but how it will happen.
Depp does a good job with Dillinger in the framework he has and manages to capture Dillinger’s sense of humor and daring. This is apparent when he casually strolls into the Chicago Police Department’s “John Dillinger Bureau” and asks for the score of the baseball game.
“Public Enemies” makes for a good summer movie because it’s entertaining and not too heavy. While the film could have used more development, it’s still enjoyable and its cast performs to the best of its ability given the limited script.