Monday, July 6, 2009

Depp, period flavor are draws for mediocre 'Public Enemies'

By Steve Crum

Despite all its bravado glass shatterings, blood splatters, and machine gun buddas, Public Enemies turns out to be pretty much a History Channel take on Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger and his 1930’s contemporaries. It is a long, long take--clocking in at nearly 2-1/2 hours.

Sure Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is a nuanced, gutsy derangement. And Depp clearly carries the film with steely persona given to bold moves with babes and banks. Yet Depp seems miscast in comparison to the real Dillinger. Dillinger, unlike Depp, was no baby faced, laid back guy. He was hard looking, showed swagger, and was comparatively flamboyant--so say the books...and The History Channel. Depp’s take, no surprise, is more introspective, more Brando. Credibility lacks.

Christian Bale, as G-Man Melvin Purvis, is also laid back to the degree of stoic. His Purvis, who pursues Dillinger here as he did in real life, is utterly emotionless. This also makes his screen persona far from memorable or forgettable. It is Dillinger-Depp’s charisma dominating Public Enemies. But do not discount Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette as Dillinger’s moll. The Oscar winning (La Vie en Rose) actress is believable and stunning.

Action director Michael Mann, who specializes in elaborate--and violent--crime drama, delivers a by-the-book story reminiscent of Mervyn LeRoy’s 1959 G-Man bouquet, The FBI Story. In that slickly entertaining flick, a Purvis-like FBI agent (Jimmy Stewart) encounters one big name ‘30s criminal after another: Ma Barker and her boys, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Dillinger amongst. In Enemies, writers Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman have adapted Bryan Burrough’s best seller to primarily focus on Dillinger’s exploits. As subtext, they fictionally team him with Baby-Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, two of the many legendary bad guys featured in Burrough’s book. In other words, Hollywood has again enhanced a film’s script by altering historic fact for the sake of entertainment and, ultimately, box office. That makes Public Enemies like a History Channel special, but in a cosmetic way.

Period flavor is everywhere in Enemies. For example, at least three Billie Holiday recordings are featured upfront to set the gloomy Sunday mood of the film. These are criminals on the move, in hiding, killing, running, forever peeking out of seedy bungalow windows as police close in. For realism, Mann shot many scenes on location where the real Dillinger held up, and holed up.

Another realistic touch is the inclusion of Dillinger’s escape from an Indiana jail using a hand-carved, wooden gun. Certainly this sequence should be included. However, why is there no explanation as to how Dillinger carved the pistol? Suddenly, he pulls the “gun,” which the audience never clearly sees, and uses it to bluff his way out of jail. Does the audience already know the wooden gun story so well there was no need to set it up? Does all this matter? Yes, it does. Apparently the lead-up was snipped due to film length, but this is assumption.

There is also a sub-story involving then fledgling FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and the supposed (but believable) roots of his life long campaign to publicize and glamorize his agency. Using his top agent Purvis and the hunt for Dillinger, Hoover manipulates the mass media of the day (radio, motion pictures, newspapers and magazines) to bolster the FBI’s image. This is interesting and, in a sense, educational to younger viewers who perhaps are unaware of Hoover’s methods.

Thirty minutes into Public Enemies, I made a note after checking my watch: “Incredibly uninvolving.” Two hours later, the same criticism gnawed. This is not a terrible movie, just disappointing when considering all the talent firing and dodging lead.
On an A to F Grade Scale: C

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