Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Public Enemies

It's interesting that the director of "Heat," Michael Mann, chose to make the title of this movie "Public Enemies." Sure, you see glimpses of other bankrobbers and numbers runners, like Pretty Boy Floyd and Frank Nitti, but the whole focus of this movie is John Dillinger.

Depp turns in a magnificent performance, in a rather low-key, nonsensical way, of John Dillinger the outlaw. We leap into the action; there's no set-up here at all, and as soon as the director can, he introduces us to the love of Dillinger's life, played by Marion Cotillard (who played Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose). However, at the end of it all, even though we see Dillinger in action and hear maybe two sentences about his rough childhood, we have no real sense of why this man is hellbent-for-leather gonna-die-soon. Even though he's very good at eluding the cops time and time again, you get the real feeling that Depp's Dillinger has no regard for his own life. He demands his own freedom to do whatever he wants to whenever he wants it, and will die trying.

The movie has a third key role, that of Mervin Purvis, a man who shows tentativeness in his actions, but fierce determination to catch the criminal his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, demands. Christian Bale matches Depp for his ability to show emotion in quiet action.

In the end, I couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys. Not because we Americans love and romanticize the bank robbers of those days, especially when they act like Robin Hood, as Dillinger reportedly did, but because all the characters in this show are cruel, vindictive and not worth cheering on. The only exception to that are Dillinger and Purvis, who have their own code of behavior, a code that even they cross on whim. The title Public Enemies may well be telling us that the cops were as bad as the criminals, each doing whatever badass thing they wanted to do. Only in this movie, the criminals seem to enjoy it more.

Depp is stunning. The art direction is gorgeous. The details of the 1930's are amazing. But in the end, Public Enemies is a series of not-terribly-exciting battle scenes interspersed with slow exposition. See it if you're a Depp or Bale fan who just has to. Otherwise, it's thumbs down.


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