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WGUC Reviews

Public Enemies

Public Enemies
Universal Pictures
Rated R
Now Showing at: most major theaters.
Review by: Larry Thomas


In the last major economic downturn in America, known as the “Great Depression,” crime was reasonably unorganized, there was no DNA or cell phones or computers, and many of these bandits found their way into American folklore, much like the outlaws of the old west. The most famous of these lawbreakers was Public Enemy Number 1, John Dillinger.

Director Michael Mann recreates that era of lawlessness in Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as the Indiana-born bank robber and erstwhile Robin Hood of the Midwest. Mann is capable of handling films of this type, as seen in Manhunter, the first Hannibal Lecter movie, although without Anthony Hopkins, and The Last of the Mohicans. Depp has proven himself many times as both a good actor and a popular movie star, whether playing for laughs or for serious. This is likely his best role since he personified film director Ed Wood for his long-time collaborator Tim Burton. He brings Dillinger’s charm and charisma to life, and makes him more than just another thug. Plus, the film has the authentic look and feel of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, it also has its fair share of flaws. At 140 minutes, the film is 40 minutes too long. The amount of characterization and action does not support that length, much of which seems repetitious, and the pacing sometimes feels very dull indeed. Christian Bale, as Melvin Purvis, the G-man who eventually kills Dillinger, is stoic to the point of being boring. We know virtually nothing about this tormented character that was anointed by J. Edgar Hoover to put an end to Dillinger’s crime spree. Bale seems getting trapped, and typecast, as a terse, brooding anti-hero in film after film. He might do well to change direction and come up with something a bit different to boost his career. We know he’s a good actor, but it will help if he can get out of the rut he’s in.

But there are good points as well. The action scenes are nicely executed, with the rat-tat-tat of the tommy guns given a tweak in the audio mix to make them really pop on the soundtrack. Co-star Marian Cotilliard, the 2007 Oscar-winner for Best Actress in la Vie en Rose, is captivating as Billie Frechette, as fascinated with Dillinger as he is with her. Excellent character performers, including Stephen Lang, Giovani Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Rory Cochrane, and LeeLee Sobieski, fill many of the small supporting roles. Compared to Depp’s screen time, they pass in front of the camera almost unnoticed, but add immeasurably to the proceedings.

The Dillinger legend has been told and retold on the screen many times, much like the life and death of Jesse James. So far, filmmakers have yet to capture the definitive tale of either of these miscreants. However, as long as these stories keep selling tickets, I’m sure they will continue trying.

The R-rated Public Enemies is now showing just about everywhere.


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