Friday, July 3, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies


I ventured out today and saw Public Enemies, the new film directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp. When I first heard about this movie via a billboard with Depp's face prominently advertised as the star who would be portraying John Dillinger, I winced. Bad idea, I thought. Depp was just too good looking to play someone as inherently sleazy as John Dillinger. Yes, Dillinger was handsome, but in a rugged, dangerous kind of way. Hollywood tends to glorify and sanitize famous criminals, especially those from the 1930s, and putting Depp in that role just seemed to magnify that even more.

Dillinger was a folk hero during the early 1930s because of his occupation of robbing banks, banks being a popular target of public resentment during the Great Depression. Depp plays this public Dillinger very well, and with Mann's sticking to historical details, Depp does all the things that made Dillinger famous and admired by the public: the chummy pose with the prosecutor after his capture, the adacious escape from the county jail with a fake gun, the taking of bank money but leaving the poor man's money on the counter. Depp's Dillinger is a slick fashionista with beautifully cut coats and fedoras and an eye for the best restaurants. His goons even look like they belong on Wall Street.

Mann is at his best here. He is a stickler for details and it pays off. He also creates a fine balance between the hunter and the hunted: Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis is a able but flawed G-man who is understandly afraid of his bully boss J Edgar Hoover. The shoot out scenes are, from what I remember, pretty close to the truth (except for the beginning scene which I understand never happened).

I have to confess that I loved Depp playing Dillinger. Like in most of Depp's movies, I could not get enough of him. I just wish that Mann had stepped away from the action of the movie long enough to give us more of Depp-playing-Dillinger on screen and add more backstory: Dillinger's weaknesses, his vulnerabilities, what made him the sociopath he was. Alas, that does not happen.

If we had seen more of Dillinger and got to see how he really operated, then maybe we would have been able to better remember that this Dillinger guy was nothing but a murderous, amoral sleazebag who just happened to be handsome, smart, and with a lot of self confidence.

Some facts are left out, such as the fact that he underwent plastic surgery near the end of his life in an attempt to change his looks to avoid capture. Some other scenes left me thinking, "Oh, come on." But for the most part I thought those abberations were minor and weren't enough for me, a purist when it comes to history, to walk out.

I liked the movie. It's beautifully shot and magnificently acted. Go see it for the sake of seeing a good, stylish film directed by one of the best. I like movies that stay closer to the truth even more, but I'll take this one and maybe even see it again.

1 comment:

Joanne Walpole said...

I've seen this trailered at the cinema but it doesn't appeal because of Johnny Depp. I like him, and he seems to be a good actor, but he's too quirky for my liking. Likewise, I like Christian Bale and he's a good actor but I'm sick of seeing him play serious and moody. Maybe if their characters had been the other way round it would have been more appealing to me. However, you've given an interesting review and I'll look forward to its release on DVD.