Johnny Depp plays it straight in ‘Public Enemies’
July 21, 2009
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Public Enemies / Starring Johnny Depp / Rated R
Johnny Depp is dapper Depression-era desperado John Dillinger in the new bullet-riddled re-telling of the story of America’s first “public ememy No. 1” and the FBI’s obsession with bringing him in, dead or alive.
Depp, who’s demonstrated his eagerness to slide into some fairly eccentric roles in movies like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” plays it straight for a change as the stylish 1930s bank robber, who loved the ladies, living on the edge and emptying the vaults of financial institutions across the Midwest.
But Christian Bale plays it even straighter as federal agent Melvin Purvis, the all-business, nose-to-the-grindstone sharpshooter handpicked by J. Edgar Hoover to put an end to Dillinger’s crime spree.
French actress Marion Cotillard is Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frenchette, a barely-getting-by coat-check girl who falls for the dashing gangster and his promises of taking her away to a better life. The 1920s hit “Bye, Bye Blackbird” becomes the theme song to their love story.
Director Michael Mann gets all the details just right, from the thunderous rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns to the clattery din of the elevated trains outside Billie’s Chicago apartment. He spends a lot of time on the little things that let you know where, and when, you are--the lighted face of a bedside AM radio, the trim on a getaway car, the dial on old rotary pay phone. He completely immerses you in Dillinger’s world.
Mann also adheres to the historical facts of Dillinger’s well-documented tapestry of brazen daylight heists, gritty shootouts and improbable jailbreaks, and addresses how Dillinger became a folk hero revered by the much of the working-class public for sticking it to the banks, the institutional villains of the day.
Too bad the movie’s fine craftwork is applied on the surface of such a hollow shell. Both Dillinger and Purvis are frustratingly one-dimensional; we’re never shown even a glimpse into how--or why--either of these “public enemies” came to be. There’s a great story there, but you won’t find it here. For a movie about such a bedeviling character and the wild-ride life he led, “Public Enemies” has surprisingly little drive, dramatic tension or emotional heft.
Technically, the movie also hits a few potholes, especially in a chaotic nighttime ambush in which it’s impossible to keep track of who’s shooting whom, and in several scenes with dialogue that’s inaudibly muddy.
“Public Enemies” won’t win any awards. But it’s a decent grown-up summer popcorn movie, especially for females who’d like to spend two hours with Johnny Depp as a bad boy from a bygone cops ’n’ robbers era, one that certainly wasn’t anything near as romantic as Hollywood has always made it seem.