In 1933 the United States was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression and the Golden Age of Bank Robbery was coming to an end as J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, "Almost Famous," "Watchmen") became obsessed with wiping out the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum, "Step Up"), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham, "Filth and Wisdom," "Inkheart") and, most of all, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the F.B.I.'s "Public Enemies."
Cowriter (with Ronan Bennett ("Lucky Break") and Ann Biderman ("Smilla's Sense of Snow"))/director Michael Mann ("Heat," "Miami Vice") has made a gloriously beautiful film about a legendary, romanticized gangster whose own romantic impulses led to his demise. Built from ideas about loyalty, doing the right thing (on both sides of the law) and finding your man (or woman), "Public Enemies" plunks us inside the action of the early thirties using today's filmmaking technology and the result is breathtaking.
In the film's opening, Dillinger is brought to a state prison in Indiana and we see him from the point of view of the cop who's herding him. Dante Spinotti's ("The Insider") high def cinematography is so crisp one finds oneself marveling at the period perfection of Depp's pomaded, razored neck hairs. Then the first prison break occurs and we witness Dillinger's code of ethics in which the dangerous public enemy number one becomes enraged at unnecessary violence and clings to his wounded mentor Walter Dietrich (James Russo, "Open Range") from the running board of a Ford until the man slips away. Dietrich told Dillinger to always only work with people he knew and to never make a move in desperation and for a little over a year, Dillinger did just that, successfully robbing bank after bank then eluding a frustrated and embarrassed law force.
On his trail is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, "The Dark Knight"), who looks upon the F.B.I. as the priesthood and Hoover as its Pope - no women for him (and, of course, that's the sin that eventually brings down Dillinger here). Purvis is as intent on his prey, and the resultant approval of his boss, as Dillinger is on living in the moment. When Dillinger spies Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, "La vie en rose") dancing in a nightclub, he makes up his mind that she will be his and promises to always take care of her.
But as Dillinger continues to rob banks while Purvis continues to hunt him (we see the F.B.I. use techniques such as tracing the origin of Dillinger's coat and recording phone conversations onto LPs), one by one the outlaw loses the men he works with, leading him to make the rash decision to join forces with Baby Face Nelson, a choice he quickly regrets. This is paralleled by Purvis's decision to move in on the infamous hole up at Little Bohemia Lodge, even after being cautioned against it by Agent Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang, "Gettysburg," "Gods and Generals"), a man personally recruited by Purvis to fight Dillinger.
If the earlier bank robberies were slick (Dillinger's the guy who made the now cliched move of hopping over bank counters famous) yet violent enough to make us feel the bullets coming our way, Mann shoots the Lodge sequence like a war movie where everyone is in alien terrain. Dillinger's only remaining ally, his right hand man 'Red' Hamilton (Jason Clarke, "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "Death Race"), tells him he believes his number is up. Subsequently, in one beautifully composed woodland shot as John and Red retreat on foot, Dillinger's death at the hands of a GMan seen over his right shoulder, is foreshadowed. Then Red's prediction comes true and Dillinger suddenly finds himself alone, separated from Billie in Chicago who is being watched 24/7. When Dillinger turns to old colleague Phil D'Andrea (John Ortiz, "Miami Vice," "Fast & Furious") for shelter, he's turned down flat, an old time crook who Phil's boss Frank Nitti (Bill Camp, "The Dying Gaul") has declared a liability. Dillinger's antics have resulted in a new law making crossing state lines a federal offense and Nitti's cross country gambling syndicate (which Phil informs John makes as much in a day as one of his bank heists) has been put at risk.
This is a rich film, covering the end of one era blossoming into a more modern one with personal and societal detail. Mann makes the point that celebrity worship in America is nothing new, especially as filtered through the movie business. There's a prosecuting attorney who cannot resist a celebrity photo op. The film's ending is masterful. Dillinger attends a showing of "Manhattan Melodrama" at the Biograph theater with Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski, "Eyes Wide Shut," 2006's "The Wicker Man"), whose madam, Anna Sage (Branka Katic, HBO's "Big Love"), accompanies them (the latter being the infamous 'lady in red' who fingered Dillinger to avoid deportation). Mann uses a montage from "Melodrama" of Myrna Loy, intercutting with reactions from Depp who clearly sees Billie reflected from the silver screen. The shooting outside the theater is as beautifully orchestrated as the restaurant hit performed by Michael in "The Godfather," real time movements and reactions seemingly suspended in time.
Depp commands one's attention every second he's on screen, leading a huge ensemble cast. He may be prettier than Dillinger was, but he sinks into the guy's skin. He carries himself with physical confidence and his near-constant gum chewing projects a cavalier attitude. Cotillard is no pushover as Billie and does OK with her first English speaking role. Bale makes Purvis a straight arrow constantly let down by many of the men under his command (Adam Mucci's ("Little Children") Agent Harold Reinecke being particularly notable) but absolutely determined to bag Hoover's biggest enemy. Crudup is the weirdest casting here, yet somehow manages to pull off his concept of J. Edgar. Of the huge supporting cast, relative unknowns Jason Clarke, as Dillinger's stand up right hand and Stephen Graham, as the borderline insane Baby Face Nelson, are the standouts. Also watch for Giovanni Ribisi (TV's "Friends," "My Name Is Earl") as Alvin Karpis and Lili Taylor ("Starting Out in the Evening") as Sheriff Lillian Holley. Stephen Dorff and Shawn Hatosy fill out small roles as a Dillinger associate and GMan respectively. Diana Krall appears as a nightclub singer.
In addition to Spinotti's work, which was Oscar caliber for Mann's "The Insider," production design and art direction, Jeffrey Fordand Paul Rubell's editing, costuming, hair and makeup and Elliot Goldenthal's original music all cohere to make "Public Enemies" one of the most exciting and fresh films of the year.
Focusing on the criminal exploits of notorious bank robber John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, director Michael Mann takes us back to the time when bank robbers in Depression-era America were considered to be Robin Hoods of the people. Mann, working with a script by the helmer and Ronan Bennett and Ann Bideman, does a marvelous job in recreating the excitement and look of the roaring 30s.
Some may complain that “Public Enemies” is too slick a production, making the killers and robbers into glamour figures with impeccable costumes and excellent production and art design. The film does deal with the issues of celebrity as figures like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) are catapulted into the news-hungry minds of the public. Faux and real newsreel footage and newspaper stories were the early Internet and the American people gobbled up any story of the criminals’ exploits.
Acting is top notch across the board with Depp being first among equals with the rich cast of characters and the actors portraying them. Christian Bale as FBI agent in charge Melvin Purvis is a bureaucrat with enough smarts to see his, and the Bureau’s, limitations, bringing the company’s expert manhunters to track down the law breakers. Others, like Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke), Dillinger’s loyal-to-the-end right hand man, and FBI agent Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), Purvis’s key criminal hunter, help to make this an exemplary ensemble film. Known thesping faces, such as Billy Crudup (unrecognizable as J. Edgar Hoover) and Giovanni Ribisi (as criminal superstar Alvin Karpis), show up at every turn and further build the strong cast. French star Marion Cotillard is solid as Dillinger’s love interest Billie Frechette and softens the frequent gunfights that permeate the whole of “Public Enemies.”
This has been all over the place with film critics with some lambasting it and others praising it to the hilt. I’m with the latter group and give it an A-.
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10 | Video
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