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Public Enemies Movie Review

- 16 July 2009, 11:07

Gangster Lament
by Betty Jo Tucker

Playing John Dillinger in Public Enemies, Johnny Depp proves why he still rules filmdom for me. His intriguing performance here contains the same impressive attention to detail he’s brought to so many other movie characters. Simply by watching Depp’s expressive face, we know Dillinger gets a kick out of movies, enjoys singing while driving away from a crime, loves the public’s attention, and — though calm most of the time — is prone to violence when provoked. Too bad the rest of this eagerly awaited crime drama comes across as a mixed bag, making it difficult to invest emotionally in what’s happening on screen during much of the film’s two-hour-plus running time. Depp and Marion Cottilard, as Dillinger’s spunky love interest, cause a few sparks to fly in their scenes together, but that’s not enough to evoke a strong emotional attachment to Public Enemies throughout.

Back in the 1930s, the FBI named bank robber John Dillinger as Public Enemy No. 1, and Michael Mann’s (Collateral) movie focuses on the FBI’s relentless campaign to bring him down. Key figures in this zealous crusade are G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Both of these ambitious men realize funding for their crime-fighting activities depends on the outcome of their work on this case. But they’re up against America’s obsession with gangsters — which reached a peak during the Great Depression — and Dillinger’s favor with the public. During that decade, distrust of authority even helped boost attendance at gangster films featuring stars like James Cagney (The Public Enemy), Humphrey Bogart (Petrified Forest) and Edward G. Robinson (Little Caeser).

Claiming he “robbed the bank’s money, not the people’s money,” Dillinger took many risks during his crime career, which garnered him a lot of press. However, he probably  underestimated the tenacity of Purvis and the agents in his crew, especially a new member played with stunning clarity by Stephen Lang (The Treatment). Public Enemies deals — perhaps too briskly — with those facts.

Of course, we know how the story ends, so the movie includes very little suspense for viewers. But we are treated to provocative revelations about Dillinger’s romance with Billie Frechette (Cotillard, Oscar-winner for La Vie en Rose). It’s interesting to see how quickly Dillinger zooms in on Frechette, and how willing she is to go along with him, despite his criminal activities. Depp and Cotillard project a steamy chemistry as lovers, and their passion for each other reminds us of the sexy rapport between Depp and Juliette Binoche in Chocolat.

Unfortunately, the “crime story” part of Public Enemies frequently appears disjointed.  Although Dillinger claims he “sticks with his pals” and they stick with him, I had trouble seeing sufficient evidence of that, perhaps because of the fast-moving pace emphasized in most of these sequences. A few continuity issues also bothered me. For example, what was going on with Dillinger’s moustache? Now you see it, now you don’t. My husband says that’s being nitpicky because it takes only about two weeks to grow a moustache and, after all, matinee idol Clark Gable sported one then. But anytime I start thinking about something like this while watching a film, it takes me away from the total immersion experience I expect from a movie.

On the plus side, period costumes, sets and background music succeed in transporting us back to the 1930s. Like Johnny Depp’s acting, these elements of Public Enemies get all the details just right.  How do I know? No time-machine magic needed – I was there.

(Released by Universal Pictures and rated “R” for gangster violence and some language.)

For more information about this movie, please go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.

Betty Jo Tucker is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the San Diego Film Critics Society (SDFCS). She teaches an online class, “The Reel Deal: Writing about Movies” for the LSS School of Writing and has published three movie-related books including CONFESSIONS OF A MOVIE ADDICT, an amusing memoir about her life at the movies. Betty Jo serves as the editor/lead film critic for ReelTalk Movie Reviews and hosts a weekly radio show, “Movie Addict Headquarters,” for BlogTalkRadio. She also writes monthly film commentary for the Colorado Senior Beacon. For more information, please go to www.BettyJoTucker.com


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