I have quite a strange feeling about me right now, and that is the farther I am from seeing Public Enemies last night, the more I think I enjoy it. Because at the time, I didn’t really. This could be because I was sitting directly in front of a man who would clear his throat quite literally every seven seconds and would emit strange burps periodically. I’d never thought of adding “Throat-clearers” to the list of annoying movie-goers, but I grew incredibly impatient to this new type of irritation, and I fear I let my aggravation towards him get reflected on the movie I was viewing. That’s not to say I thought this was a spectacular movie, on the contrary. I think this was an admirable attempt that slightly missed the mark, a respectable, but cold and unentertaining film.
Now before I go, I never try to spoil things that I think shouldn’t be spoiled. And though I find it difficult to spoil a historical film such as this, I will warn you before I give anything away about the ending of the movie. Though I suspect most of you know the ending anyway.
The plot is as straight as an arrow and simple as pie. It’s the 1930s, and the depression has set in for the long haul. Gangs of criminals have ransacked banks throughout the Midwest, led by the likes of Ma Barker, George “Baby Face” Nelson, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and many others with silly quotation-mark worthy nicknames. One of the most famous was John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), who soon became labeled Public Enemy number one, and was one of the most frequently named persons in the papers for a brief time resulting in his arrival as somewhat of a celebrity. He was a smooth talker, and he’d either get you with his sharp tongue or his tommy gun.
J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) will stop at nothing to catch Dillinger, and under the forming FBI creates an entire team, to be headed by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). What comes out is a rather lackluster game of cat and mouse, as we switch from both points of view, watching the glorified criminal escape the violently brutal authorities again and again.
That’s it, and that’s really all we get. The plot really doesn’t rise or fall, the characters really don’t develop or get any depth or dimension past their required caricatures. Even at the film’s climax, there’s no rising action, no real drama at all. It just sort of happens. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we know what Dillinger did; he robbed banks. There ends the extent of our knowledge. We don’t really know who the man was all that well. He was charming and funny to the press, was obviously headstrong and confident, but we don’t know much beyond that. And the movie, perhaps wisely, doesn’t try to fill in too many blanks. Dillinger drops a line that his mother died young and his father beat him, but this certainly doesn’t qualify as a biopic about John Dillinger. Since the movie tries to stay accurate to history, when the history is relatively unknown, it isn’t approached.
Depp is, I’ll say it, superbly cast as Dillinger. The picture on the left shows they definitely share some physical similarities. I am used to seeing him covered in excessive make-up, wearing fantastic wigs, and acting the eccentricities of a lunatic with each new strange character he takes (read: The Mad Hatter). Those things are, dare I say, easy. But Depp reminds us here that he is a fantastic actor, and pulls of the realistic just as well as the cartoonish. While Dillinger on screen never gets quite deep enough, Depp plays him impeccably. He’s funny, especially when arrested, and he’s a gentleman of a crook. He never stole from customers, but he was certainly no re-distributing Robin Hood. “I’m here for the bank’s money, not yours,” he tells a customer who has forked out what cash he has. Sure, but you want the man to plea, “but it’s my money in the bank!” Which, apparently, Dillinger never thought of. He has limits of criminal decency (“The press don’t like kidnapping”) and cares about his friends and particularly, his girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
Their romance is somewhat Hollywood-ized. They fall for each other instantly, he buys her nice things and gives a quick-witted monologue and she’s all his to protect, though it’s him that puts her in danger to begin with. It is true that the two shared something meaningful. (I suppose Spoilers follow) Frechette actually went on tour, talking about her time with Dillinger to audiences and the press nationwide. And I read an account that said, when she was arrested (which she was), Dillinger “cried like a baby for hours.” (source). (End spoilers).
The rest of the cast is largely forgettable. Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis is adequate, at best, never giving more nor less than the essentials to require his presence. Channing Tatum as “Pretty Boy” Flloyd is annoying and flamboyant, more in the style of the gangster movies actually made in the 3os.
I do have some problems with this movie completely glorifying John Dillinger, while vilifying the police chasing him. I’m not saying the man was pure evil, but bottom line is he stole a lot of money and killed quite a few cops. The movie glances over that little aspect of his life. Meanwhile the policemen and FBI agents commit some ruthless acts, including refusing to give somebody with a bullet behind his right eye any medicine and beating around a woman in custody (though that actually happened), all for the sake of information. If they’re going to make sure to show the good in Dillinger, they should do the same for the other side of the coin, particularly if they’re going for the realism this movie tried to achieve.
There is one type of action scene in this movie that is repeated again and again; bullets start ringing out, parties take cover behind walls or cars, and fire out windows or in a general direction of their enemy, but primarily hiding while the barrage of bullets flies around them. This is, I’d imagine, a relatively realistic rendition of what a gunfight would look like, which means it is also redundantly boring. God, didn’t anything blow up in the thirties? Just kidding… The scenes were put in, I’m sure, to add excitement and action to the film, but they’re too long and not thrilling enough to earn the term ‘action’ scenes. They are required for plot, since gangsters certainly had shoot-outs, but they probably could have cut these off a little sooner and got on with it.
That’s not to say there weren’t some entertaining scenes. There’s a rather thrilling jail-break sequence, for starters, but the real highlight of this movie required no bullets and few lines. Dillinger’s friend needs to go the Chicago police station, and Dillinger offers to take her. Once there, he walks inside, and then straight into the door with his name on it. That’s right, he walks right into his own “Dillinger Bureau.” It’s mostly empty, there are a few people watching a sports game in the corner. But Depp plays this scene brilliantly, walking around with a look of arrogance and curiosity on his face as he observes his own manhunt. Then, just for good measure, before he leaves he asks the men in there what the score is. This, mind you, is widely accepted to be fact.
So overall, the movie sacrifices a little to extended monotonous gun fights, and has an unthrilling and unchanging plot. But it has some good moments, and though it glorifies somone who has perhaps already received too much glory, gives a good look at a man who has become an American myth.