Depp And His Inner Outlaw

Movie Review

***-1/2 Actor Imbues Gangster John Dillinger With A Bit Of Bogie In 'Public Enemies' ( 3 1/2 Stars)

July 01, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Public Enemies provides a welcome shock to the system. This tough-minded, visually electric movie about Great Depression bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) takes audiences into the center of the action in its opening minutes. It keeps them there as it expands into a bristling chronicle of a country in flux. Without ever telling viewers what to think or how to feel, it raises more questions about the corruption of crime and crime fighting than any expose or thesis. And if it sometimes registers too coolly, by the end it rouses more bruised feelings than any four-hankie weepie.

Depp goes all the way with the role of a wry, wily Midwesterner; he gives a performance equally alert and emotional. He really nails this character - the scion of an age of speed who says he wants "everything" and wants it "right now." According to Raoul Walsh's terrific old crime film High Sierra, which starred Humphrey Bogart as a Dillinger-like bandit, the real Dillinger once said that he and his fellow criminals were all "rushing toward death."

Even after Depp's Dillinger sees that he's racing toward the grave, he can't change course. Depp has become as great an actor-star as Bogart. He conveys the calculation of a self-made celebrity who won't do kidnappings because he knows his public wouldn't like it. But he also brims over with the romance of a folk hero who tries to practice honor among thieves and hands bank customers back their petty cash (he wants only "the bank's money"). He risks everything for his true love, a Chicago hat check girl, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who's tired of rich people judging her by her clothes and men rejecting her because she is half Indian.

Cotillard acts with passionate limpidity. You know exactly what she's feeling, even when Billie is trying to figure out whether she can take a chance on a self-styled Robin Hood like Dillinger. (He's willing to slam the noggin of a customer into the coat counter because the man interrupts their first lovers' quarrel.) She draws you in like a friend giving you a heart-to-heart, yet she does it in character. It's the opposite of the bravura performance as Edith Piaf that won her an Oscar in La Vie en Rose, but it's just as affecting.

These stars act with dynamic subtlety, and that's how Michael Mann has made this movie. He puts viewers right on the running board of speedy cars, the vehicles that were key to the "golden age of bank robberies." But Mann also puts them in Congress with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) when he argues that he should lead America's War on Crime - though Hoover had never made a single arrest himself.

Hoover selects Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to head up his Chicago office, bag Dillinger, and thus prove the FBI's prowess to a doubting FDR and Congress. Hoover thinks he is picking the perfect guy for the job. Purvis, a dead shot with a rifle, unites field experience with Hoover's "scientific" methods, such as wiretapping. But Purvis can't get anywhere with Hoover's college-boy recruits. By the time he persuades Hoover to call up seasoned lawmen from Oklahoma and Texas, the legal version of flop-sweat has set in. Bale gives an admirable, self-effacing performance as a fellow who feels as if he's getting in over his head, inch by inch.

In this film, Dillinger's mentor, Walter Dietrich (James Russo), lays down two laws before he dies: Never work with men you don't know, and never take a job when you're desperate. Dillinger ends up doing both. So does Purvis.

The movie is about the mistakes that gangs, agencies and countries make when they begin to think that it takes cold-blooded tactics to restore order. Hoover's War on Crime starts to resemble the War on Terror. On the other side of the law, "organized crime" cracks down on freelancers like Dillinger. By the mid-30s, bank robbers who draw police attention threaten the steady income that the Mafia has developed by monopolizing betting.

Mann keeps his laser-like focus on prison escapes, stick-up jobs, getaways and shoot-outs. Yet his style isn't merely surgical. Working in high-definition digital, with framing as exact and surprising as a sharpshooter's gun-sight, Mann makes you experience, viscerally, the difference between a true man of action like the keen, intelligent Dillinger - and the hysterical blowhard Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), a quick-on-the-trigger maniac.

The movie shows you sights you've never seen before - not with ostentatious set pieces or Transformers-like special effects, but with historical vignettes, such as long flares lighting up nighttime crime scenes for newspaper photographers and newsreel cameras. With impeccable casting in every scene, Mann manages to give the film an epic solidity. He fills even tiny roles with players who bring conviction to them, such as Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang.

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