Gangster Movie Month: "Pubic Enemies" Review

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Johnny Depp stars as celebrated outlaw John Dillinger in this historical drama directed by Michael Mann. Christian Bale portrays Melvin Purvis, the federal agent out to get Dillinger, and Billy Crudup acts as FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. The film accurately depicts bank robberies and prison breaks as well as the relationship between Dillinger and his girlfriend Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard).
3.5

Gangster Movie Month: "Pubic Enemies" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 140 minutes
Release Date: July 1, 2009
Directed by: Michael Mann
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama

Infamous bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) was a bold, seemingly fearless man to the public, but "Public Enemies" breaks down his psyche to explore how he captivated an entire country for a little over a year in the 1930s. The film doesn't delve into his childhood, like many biographical films would, opting instead to start when Dillinger escaped from prison, which was the beginning of one of the most storied crime sprees in the history of the United States.

Dillinger hates what he calls the system, which for him is the jail that keeps people imprisoned and bank that keeps people's money. He hates the system so much that he wants to get one up on it at every possible opportunity. That is why he escapes from prison and intends to rob banks. He gathers a group of fellow system haters in Pete (David Wenham), Red (David Clarke), and Homer (Stephen Dorff) to help him rob banks. The gang members love that they are rolling in money, while Dillinger seems to love the plotting and planning of the heists more than the money. The only thing that distracts him from plotting his next masterful robbery is Billie (Marion Cotillard), a naïve coat check girl whom he offers to protect because she helps him flex his muscles like the powerful man he aspires to be.

When the newspapers begin printing bold headlines about Dillinger, the government must intervene. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), sends out a group of men to capture him, including the hardboiled Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), whose laser focus on his target rivals Dillinger's laser focus on bank robbing. In fact, if the two were a little more sympathetic to each other, they might have formed a grudging mutual respect. Instead, Purvis begins to hunt down Dillinger relentlessly and almost captures him during one particular standoff at Little Bohemia Lodge that is the stuff of historical legend. The film shows Purvis in various states of concentration and anger over the FBI's failed attempts to capture the criminal, who talks to reporters and waltzes into police stations undetected as if he is trying to get caught. That boldness will lead to his eventual downfall, but not before giving the audience a real thrill ride.

The Hollywood archives are filled with gangster films set in the 1930s, which is the period when Dillinger ruled. They are careful to tell the tale of the gangsters, usually depicting their ascensions in the ranks and inevitable downfalls or deaths. The director, Michael Mann, along with coscreenwriters, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, delves into the reasons why gangsters like Dillinger became so notorious in the first place. The media had a heavy hand in this with daily radio reports and newspaper front pages splashing images of the bank robber all over. Many people think acting or singing is how to get fame, but people like Dillinger achieved the same end goal with crime thanks to copious amounts of publicity from the press.

Johnny Depp has proved his acting mettle in nearly every genre, but crime films seem to really draw out his great performances. He was moving as Al Pacino's protégé in "Donnie Brosco" and memorable in "Blow." He shared a lot of screen time in those movies, but in "Public Enemies," he is not only the main character but also the largest focus by far. He carries the entire film, becoming John Dillinger in a way that few actors can embody a part. His take on Dillinger is cocky, brass, and just reckless enough to not have a long-term plan for his chosen profession. This lack of a retirement plan would be his eventual undoing, but it is fun to watch Depp play Dillinger as he inches ever closer to his inevitable fate.

Mann has a keen eye for what works in period films, paying close attention to detail and getting a real feel for the era. That's why it was surprising when he announced that he would be filming this movie in high definition, which many critics felt would not be able to pick up the nuances of period piece films. Those concerns turned out to be much ado about nothing because he used the HD cameras to great effect here. Armed with HD cameras, an unflinching script, and a fine performance from Depp, "Public Enemies" is the deepest and best cinematic take on John Dillinger to date.

Rating 3.5 out of 5