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Given America's current financial difficulties, I've been thinking a lot recently about thieves. Call me crazy, but I'd much rather have a gun stuck in my face and my wallet lifted than have some buttoned-down snake like Bernie Madoff smile, shake my hand, then carry my loot out the back door in a $9,000 briefcase. Maybe that's why we're prone to make heroes out of our thieves in America. Whatever a common bank robber is, at least he's honest about his dishonesty.
That weird duality of the country's feelings toward crime — half rooting for the Sheriff of Nottingham, half rooting for Robin Hood — is in full effect in the new film “Public Enemies,” by director Michael Mann. Though the script isn't quite up to snuff emotionally, the film's a beautiful thing to look at, and the scenes that go bang, which Mann has always been a virtuoso at directing, are the best I've seen in awhile.
The story follows one of our most celebrated miscreants, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), from his daring plot to break his pals out of the Indiana State Prison to his epic crime wave, which he largely gets away with. This was, after all, the “Golden Age” of bank robbery — after the invention of hand-held machine guns and V8 automobiles, before pesky notions like interstate crime laws and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That was all starting to change, however, by the time Mann picks up the threads of Dillinger's story, with J. Edgar Hoover (played to weasel-like perfection by Billy Crudup) laying the foundations of the FBI in Washington and Congress working to give the agency broader latitude in fighting crime over state lines. Enter Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who Hoover puts on Dillinger's trail after Purvis successfully tracks down and kills Pretty Boy Floyd. The result: fast cars, fast women and a whole lot of spent Tommy gun rounds, all leading up to the fateful meeting between Purvis and Dillinger at Chicago's Biograph Theater.
Mann's cinematics — especially his shootouts — are first rate, the camera an extra, panicked eyeball in the room. This gives “Public Enemies” the same dreamy, documentary-like quality employed in Mann's previous film “Collateral.”
The problem, it seems to me, is that in the interest of making this flick a Bale/Depp showdown, Mann simply does not go back far enough into Dillinger's past to really let us know what drives him. It would be as if “Walk the Line” started in 1959, with Johnny Cash already a star, already addicted, already in freefall. As it stands, we don't really know where Dillinger came from, why he cares so much for an anonymous hat check girl, why he is so loyal to his friends, why he seems so cold in the face of death. We need all that if we're going to understand the character.
Johnny Depp does an amazing job with Dillinger, just the sort of emotionally starved, low-key performance that got him noticed in “What's Eating Gilbert Grape.” But without the emotional underpinning of the character, which could have been provided by the barest glimpse of what made him, Dillinger comes across a lot of the time as simply a cold-blooded bastard — which he probably was, once you strip away all the folklore and yellow journalism.
Don't get me wrong: “Public Enemies” is definitely worth the price of a ticket. It's fast, it's beautiful, it's brutal and raw and it gives a meticulously made glimpse into an era that seems, in this day and age, like ancient history. With all that going for it, however — not to mention one of the greatest actors in the business on point — I just can't help to think how good it could have been had it gone a little further.
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