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Gangsters Used to Be So Loveable
by Martin Malloy on Jul 02, 2009
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Public Enemies is one of those rare summer flicks that can satisfy the audienceís need for cheap action and thrills while also delivering a quality film. Michael Mann (Collateral, Heat) crafts a depression-era gangster film that is original in its presentation and offers a top-tier cast.
Itís refreshing to see Johnny Depp play such a relatively straightforward character, after donning pirate outfits and Tim Burton fantasies for the last few years. Not only is it refreshing but itís also a reminder that Depp is a damn good actor, eccentric or not. He brings a glowing charisma the original John Dillinger oozed. Depp and Mann transport the audience to the time when gangsters had a flare thatís absent in todayís society. Sure they were hardwired criminals, but they knew how to obtain the publicís approval.
Based on Bryan Burroughís invigorating book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Mann and writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman make Dillinger and his FBI adversary Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) the focus of the story. Purvis is handpicked by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup in a small, yet phenomenal performance that subtly recalls an ambitious yet stubborn man) to head up its new gangster division and Dillinger is at the top of their list.
Depp plays Dillinger as fast and loose, never worrying about tomorrow and always living for today. As a prolific bank robber, he has a charm that even his enemies canít escape and a moral irony of stealing the bankís money, not the peopleís, which makes him a public celebrity. Despite his carefree attitude, heís a calculating and relatively simple man, which is what allows him to successfully elude his captors as his comrades, including Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), fall around him. Dillinger represents the end of an era and Purvis is adamant on ushering in the new.
Some may call the hi-def camerawork jarring for a period piece, but it makes the picture only more engaging. Instead of the grandiose and sprawling landscape shots many may be expecting, Mann puts the camera up close (almost too close) to create a characterís perspective of the action, and not that of an outsider. Sure, the beautifully empty banks of 1933 are shown in all their glory, but Mann is concerned with creating a character piece and not necessarily a historical piece that paints by numbers.
The only real drawback of Mannís portrayal, besides, perhaps, stretching historical truth, is that Baleís character is wholly undeveloped in contrast to Deppís. Bale plays the character straight and rugged, Deppís opposite, but it feels as if Mann almost forgot to personalize Purvis. As Dillinger grows as a character, Purvis stays stagnant and is the quintessential gentleman that rejects Hooverís quasi-criminal tactics and puts is all into catching his criminals. Still, for many, this will be a minor flaw as Bale is also a phenomenal actor in a poetic film where Depp undeniably steals the show.
by Martin Malloy on Jul 02, 2009
images courtesy of Universal Pictures
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger
Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis and Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover