Movie review: Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in Public Enemies

When we first meet Dillinger, he’s orchestrating the jailbreak of some associates, including his mentor Walter Dietrich. The prison break goes wrong, gunfire breaks out and Walter is fatally wounded — the first of Dillinger’s associates to die in his presence. After a stop at a safe house, Dillinger and the remaining men head for Chicago to make some money and hide in plain sight among the teeming masses that love the charismatic Johnny.

Dillinger is a folk hero, exacting a little poetic revenge on the banks that had plunged the nation into the Great Depression. Dillinger and his crew are professionals, knocking over banks in a minute-forty and charming the patrons on the way out the door. In the days before surveillance cameras, dye packs and helicopter patrols, law enforcement is simply over-matched. Or as Dillinger explains, the cops have to guard all the banks all of the time, he’s just got to hit one.

But don’t tell that to the FBI. Director J. Edgar Hoover (a smarmy Billy Crudup) is press-savvy and sees the value in busting a big-named criminal like Dillinger to keep the funding flowing for his fledgling agency of G-men. Hoover has his ace in Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a humorless man of dogged determination who gets promoted to the Dillinger task force after running down and capping Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd in an apple orchard with a rifle shot to the back.

As Purvis ramps up his investigation, Dillinger spends a night out on the town carousing with the boys. While at a club he spies Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and it’s love at first sight. Billie doesn’t quite know what to make of Johnny, and she’s repulsed by the idea that her man could land in prison at a moment’s notice — or worse. But soon her doubts subside as she’s swept up in a romance fed by the danger right around the corner.

The film jumps from Chicago to Miami, where the crew retires for some R&R. After a day at the horse races, Dillinger is recognized by hotel staff and ends up back behind bars. It’s here that Dillinger finally meets Purvis, goading the lawman to get a new job because he isn’t cut out for the bloodshed his current occupation requires. Both Depp and Bale are excellent here, and their short meeting is one of the highlights of the film.

Dillinger is transferred from Florida to Indiana to stand trial. Before he can be convicted, hw pulls off a daring escape, this one involving a gun carved from soap and the theft of the warden’s car. Once on the outside, though, Dillinger’s life on the run will be marked by desperation. He’s forced to work with a new crew, including trigger-happy “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham), and the professional precision of Dillinger’s earlier bank robberies is replaced by bumbling, excessive violence: Nelson shoots up the bank, the street and anything that moves.

But what’s dangerous for the characters is exhilarating for the audience, as Nelson’s instability leads to two excellent gun battles. Mann shoots the movie tight and largely hand-held, with big close-ups of the stars, and the style works. The period look of the film is seamless, from the locations to the dress to the cars and guns. It feels like a real world. And when the bullets start to fly, the movie kicks up the volume, reminiscent more of Mann’s Heat than gangster flicks of the ’30s. But the high testosterone works well here, mostly because the characters have motives the audience can easily understand.

In a summer already loaded with big, dumb action flicks, Public Enemies is a rare combination of action movie and thought-provoking biopic. The acting is excellent across the board, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Depp and Bale get consideration at Oscar time. And if you know nothing about the real Dillinger, I’m quite sure the film will work as a riveting thriller. Public Enemies is probably the best film Michael Mann has ever directed, and it’s one of the best films of the year thus far.

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You have to hand it to the producers of Public Enemies; their timing is impeccable. After months of watching the banks loot the nation’s treasury of billions under the guise of the TARP bailout, the public is bound to be receptive to heartthrob Johnny Depp as charismatic bank robber John Dillinger. It helps that Depp is stellar here, his Dillinger a smooth cat who’s quick to give a lady his coat or his word. As directed by Michael Mann (The Insider, Heat), Public Enemies is a gripping gangster flick that works both as a Depression-era period piece and a throwback to the films of that era.

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