While Johnny Depp's films are largely fun to watch, and due in no small part to Depp's contributions, it can now be stated with some certainty that as an actor his range is fairly limited. What? How can that be? He played both Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd, polar opposite characters! Edward Scissorhands and John Dillinger are light years away from each other! Well, all of Depp's performances fall into two big categories, and while both are good, neither are very distinctive anymore as his career has worn on. Those categories are a) cool and quiet, and b) excessively weird.
Public Enemies, like Finding Neverland, From Hell, and Blow, falls into the cool Johnny Depp category. This is fine, but it always feels just a hair understated, and it is no different here. When the character he plays is weird, at least there is a vibrancy to the film, and these tend to be better on the whole. Sure, weird doesn't work in all instances. A wacky, mincing John Dillinger may have been a hard swallow, but it may have carried the picture a little better.
As it is, Depp's Dillinger is cool and iconic and downplayed. This is in contrast to the main protagonist - Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis, the lawman in charge of tracking Public Enemy #1 Dillinger down. Bale's Purvis is also cool, collected, and understated, making them perhaps too similar. And as you never get any legitimate grasp on why Dillinger robs banks and leads this criminal life, he and Purvis are set up as just being a shade away from each other, that it was just choice of vocation that separates them, and nothing else.
Most of the other criminals in the film are the same way - just robbing banks because they're there, and looking for the next score with no goal or end game. The federal agents are tracking them because it's their job, with only J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) having a single minded determination about it, and that's more based on political pressure than any real concern with protecting the populace from crime.
This is mainly the problem with the film, though. There's really no way to root for anyone. While Dillinger is supposed to be the Robin Hood of bank robbers, it's not like he's giving money to the poor here in the Great Depression, he's just not robbing them too. But as his motivation to do these things is personal gain and virtually nothing else, how can we really want to see him succeed? The character is wildly underdeveloped, and while Dillinger is sort of a classic figure in American crime, it's not like his backstory is so well known now seventy-five years after his death that an audience can fill the holes in for themselves.
Alternately, the agents seeking him, particularly Bale's Purvis, have little to no character as well - just faceless G-Men tracking down bad guys. The movie, with no real people to be overly interested in, then forces you to just immerse yourself in the plot. This is structured thusly: jail break, bank robbery, getaway, agents grousing, criminals dining, bank robbery, arrest, jail break, bank robbery, and so on. It degenerates into just waiting for Dillinger to get killed, and so only really gets you involved in the last twenty minutes.
There is a love story built in, which is supposed to give Dillinger some heart and depth, and make it look like this is why he does these things, so that he can get out of the life of crime. He meets coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and falls in with her, mainly because she's not like the high class broads he runs into at the high class joints he frequents. This is a nice side touch to the repetitive bank robbery/shootout sequences, but doesn't quite succeed in galvanizing the development of the Dillinger and doesn't make the ending tragic in any way.
The agents are largely made to be the same, with Purvis as the leading example, but they are also villified late in the picture, with their one obsessive, abusive agent (Adam Mucci) smacking Billie around when she won't give up John. This works as a balance to Dillinger falling in with the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), who you're supposed to loathe because he actually shoots people during bank robberies, instead of just saying cool things and smacking security guards.
So you have a film where you can't root for anyone, and the plot continues to loop around on itself. It's hard to much care, then, what all happens, plus you know going in (presumably) how it ends. So why watch? Well, all in all the movie isn't as bad as this review has led up to. Michael Mann is typically great behind the camera, giving you a very different looking crime picture, even set when it is. Despite all the careful attention to detail, the movie still pulses like a modern film, at no time feeling creaky and antiquated. It could've been filmed like a typical ‘30s period piece, adoring the details and being primarily concerned with feeling the era more than the tone. This movie delivers tone and gritty cool throughout.
The performances are excellent, despite the drawbacks of Depp and Bale's entwined turns. Both are still very good, very strong respectively, with Depp faring better in his scenes with Cotillard. For her part, Cotillard is wonderful, giving a very decidedly un-Hollywood feeling portrayal across the board. Her natural French accent tends to slip in from time to time, and makes the cadences of her lines a bit odd, but it gives Billie a sort of entrancing quality.
The pace is a bit slow, yet there is no shortage of gunfights. There is no significant mystery as to the plot, only the motivations. It works okay as an action crime picture, but there really are no surprises. There is plenty of skill on display, but cast and crew really deserved a better script and story. I'm not sure if it would've functioned better as an all around biography of Dillinger, as I don't know how interesting his life story was before what's covered in this film, but it seems that some better structuring of what they had could've been done.
The Goatius Grade = 3.0
Other films currently in theaters:
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Away We Go
Angels & Demons
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Monsters vs. Aliens
Read all 12 Reviews
Write a Review