4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
A good gangster film like "Bonnie and Clyde" or "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre" will take grim moments in criminal history and turn them into romantic folklore. Great gangster movies like "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" make you feel like you're part of the action - and will leave you quoting the character's signature lines.
With that in mind, "Public Enemies" is a very good gangster/bank robber movie; there aren't any iconic lines, but the action is fast and dangerous. "Public Enemies" is a realistic recreation of the Depression era, a time when working stiffs betrayed by failed banks looked up to the criminals that pilfered those same lending institutions.
A romantic figure to many (especially to those in the Mid West who admired his Robin Hood veneer and helped him hide out), Dillinger pulled bank jobs using ingenuity rather than muscle, passing off his gang as a film crew or posing as a security alarm salesman in order to slip by the guards. Unlike his contemporaries, the sociopathic Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and psychopathic Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, Dillinger seemed to go out of his way to avoid bloodshed. Johnny Depp's portrayal of Dillinger is based on the bank robber's media-friendly image. The man himself is more of a mystery, particularly what motivated him, but we're given a brief glimpse between bank jobs:
Billie Frenchette: I don't know anything about you."Public Enemies" validates Johnny Depp's chameleon-like acting abilities. I loved his drunken seafaring imitation of Keith Richards in "The Pirates of the Caribbean," as well as his cross-dressing canonization of director Ed Wood. My personal fave is Depp's on the run wounded cowboy in "Dead Man," a film few have seen. Is he up for the challenge of portraying Dillinger, a desperado so ingrained in our mind that everybody has a preconceived notion of what he should look like, the way he should talk, and act? (In my mind he's a bit like Humphrey Bogart.)
Dillinger: I was raised on a farm in Mooresville, Indiana. My mama died when I was three. My daddy beat the hell outta me 'cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey and you. What else do you need to know?
The answer, of course, is yes. Depp turns Dillinger into a charming, charismatic rock star who dotes on his girl, poses for pictures with cops, cracks wise about the few days he has left, and seems determined to live them in style. Chalk up another acting triumph for Johnny.
As Dillinger's adversary, Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis sounds like George Bush, Jr. and is about as stuffy. A man of honor, Purvis chafes at F.B.I. boss J. Edgar Hoover's lack of scruples. Bale captures Purvis' lock-jawed determination and conflicted personality as if he wearing Purvis' skin. You can tell he studied his character's every nuance.
Billy Crudup gets his crud up (I love saying that) as Hoover. Crudup's Hoover is modeled after what we learned about the secretive head of the secret service after his death; he was prissy, fussy, and as equally obsessed with his image as he was with killing Dillinger. Despite being a good guy, Crudup's Hoover is contemptible, not above threatening his subordinates ("Take off the white gloves, Mr. Purvis"), manufacturing lies for the press or allowing his agents to "question" a woman with their fists. You'll hiss when he's on screen, which means Billy didn't do a cruddy job - he's first-rate.
Oddly, its Marion Cotillard portrayal of gun moll Billie Frenchette that keeps "Public Enemies" from being a sure fire hit. Her role as Dillinger's love interest is overstated and boring. Whenever she's on screen the action screeches to a halt faster than a Packard hitting a police van. True, most great films have a love story, but this one's D.O.A. I try not to make fun of a person's infirmities, but the distracting mole in the center of Cotillard's head is so big it looks like a third eye, and the effort to de-glam her to fit her role as a hat check girl worked too well - she looks like the butt end of a machine gun. Couple her empty personality with that intermittent comical Canadian accent that makes her sound like a drunken hockey player, and it's hard to believe that Cotillard was nominated for an Oscar let alone won one.
Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton in "Tombstone") is remarkable as unsmiling, business-like Charles Winstead, the Texas Ranger who fired the shots that propelled Dillinger toward immortality. Lang's Winstead maintains a steely-eyed, knotted expression throughout the action, yet in the end he shows he has more of a heart than either Hoover or Purvis.
As captivating as the cast and mouse struggle between Dillinger and Purvis is, "Public Enemies" other sub plots pale by comparison. The supporting characters personalities are skeletal as prisoners trapped on Alcatraz. The film is called "Public Enemies," not "The John Dillinger Story." True, Baby Face Nelson is pretty easy to figure out - he's a psychotic, trigger-mad imp who takes his insecurities out on the world, but it would have been nice to see Stephen Graham's blood-thirsty portrayal given more substance. Pretty Boy Floyd's death is little more than a cameo, and too many of Dillinger's bank-looting cronies come across as faceless targets. One of the more interesting (and true) incidents in the film is when Dillinger breaks out of jail with the help of Herbert Youngblood, a black man. Equal opportunity employment, especially among hoods and gangsters, was rare in the 30s, so it might have been an interesting aside to find out more about the Dillinger/Youngblood back story, especially since Dillinger treats "Mr. Youngblood" with such reverence.
There are more historical inaccuracies in the film than there are bullets in a Thompson Sub-Machine gun (that'd be about 100). The filmmakers would lead you to believe that Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson were exterminated before Dillinger; in fact, Nelson became Public Enemy No. 1 following Dillinger's demise. The Dillinger/Frenchette love story is a necessary ploy device, but Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski) was his girl; it was Polly's picture that Dillinger was carrying around inside his pocket watch the night he was dusted, not Billie's. The romantic subplot would have mattered if luscious Leelee Sobieski was the lead lady instead of third eye Cotillard. Other moments are manufactured or exaggerated for dramatic effect, such as the shoot out at the Little Bohemia Lodge. In reality, Baby Face fired a few rounds at the Feds as he and Dillinger escaped. Although Baby Face brought down a Fed, there was no battle royale as depicted in "Public Enemies," but the night time showdown is a rat-a-tat blast and one of the film's most noteworthy scenes.
There are other made up moments, such as having Dillinger calmly stroll into the police station to check out photos, folders and news clips of himself. The brief face-to-face showdown between Purvis and Dillinger never occurred, but it's not hard to figure out why it was added. Watching Depp and Bale trade barbs is like witnessing an epic battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier; they both hit so hard you're not sure who's going to deliver the knockout punch.
If you're really into Dillinger, there's an earlier unapologetic, more visceral and definitely less romantic self-titled flick about the notorious bank robber filmed in 1973 starring rough and tumble character actor Warren Oates, the only thesp to ever play Dillinger who actually looked like him. The rest of the cast are tailor made for their roles with Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis, Michelle Phillips as Billie Frenchette, Cloris Leachman as Anna Sage (the lady in red who lured Dillinger to his death) and Richard Dreyfuss as kill-crazy Baby Face Nelson (!)
So take "Public Enemies" into the privacy of your home. Depp's in-depth performance will leave you saying, "Go, Johnny, go."