30 June 2009
"I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars and you. What else do you need to know?"
As portrayed by Johnny Depp in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, Depression-era criminal John Dillinger was efficient in everything he did, whether it was a bank robbery, jailbreak or sweeping a lovely young woman off her feet—in and out of a bank in one minute, 40 seconds; calmly walking to a getaway car while bullets fly around him; winning the heart of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, the French Oscar-winner looking quite at home in 1930s Chicago) with simple, direct statements like the one quoted.
With Depp's star power behind him, Dillinger is a sort of prince of thieves, a hero to the public who steals from the banks that they believe stole from them. A frightened teller empties her pockets during one robbery. "We're here for the bank's money, not yours. Put it away," Dillinger instructs her.
Though a charmer, he's no Robin Hood. He steals from the rich and gives to himself. He'll also employ violence—no more than necessary, however—without a second thought if it will further his ends.
Rather than follow the typical biopic format, "Public Enemies" covers only the final 14 months of Dillinger's life. As for his past, Mann, who wrote the screenplay with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, based on Bryan Burroughs' book of the same name, lets us know only that his mother died when he was young, his father beat him and a grocery store robbery led to a long prison sentence.
The movie is more interested in the who than the why—who Dillinger was, not why he became that almost mythical figure—and how public perception and the law's tightening noose affected him.
Depp makes it easy to root for Dillinger, playing him with a laid-back, almost effortless charisma. He's even more likable next to some of his associates, the maniacal George "Baby Face" Nelson (Stephen Graham) in particular. But cracks in the armor start to show when so many around him meet their ends with violent deaths.
Mann provides no introduction, throwing us straight into Dillinger, only recently paroled after a nine-year stint behind bars, breaking members of his gang out of prison. They embark on a series of bank robberies across the Midwest, while the fledgling Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of the ambitious J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), steadily escalates its efforts to catch or kill him.
Hoover, portrayed as an opportunistic administrator who has no real sense for the work his investigators carry out, chooses Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to head his Dillinger squad. Purvis is as straight an arrow as they come, but he quickly realizes that the untested detectives on the hunt are no match for Dillinger's crew. So he convinces Hoover to let him bring in some "lawmen" from Texas for a little extra muscle.
Bale plays Purvis as grim and humorless but not without emotion. There is a clear internal war raging as Purvis tries to find a balance between doing his duty to hunt down Dillinger and the interrogation methods—bordering on torture—employed by his men. Bale says a lot by saying very little, a welcome return to form after his histrionic performance in Terminator Salvation.
With Dante Spinotti's handheld, high-definition video cinematography, Mann gives the film an immediacy rarely seen in a period piece. It shows that action doesn't have to confuse and split eardrums a la Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It can be stylized yet gritty at the same time and achieve in its own way a sense of grace and beauty.
Public Enemies is a superb piece of filmmaking, packed with thrilling shootouts, technical expertise and so many interesting names and faces that it easily could have been much longer. Even at 140 minutes, it is a tightly focused picture, the rare film that makes you want to see more.
(Rated R for gangster violence and some language. 140 minutes.)