Hollywood Product: Public Enemies
The cops-and-robbers flick starts with a bang and ends with a whimper
GENRE: Cops-and-robbers period piece
THE PITCH: In 1933, celebrity outlaw John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) robs banks and eludes the pursuit of the FBI’s Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who grows disenchanted with the investigative techniques championed by an oily J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup).
MONEY SHOTS: Director Michael Mann doesn’t shortchange audiences hoping for bravura action scenes. Dillinger and his gang blast their way out of prison in the opening set piece. Purvis’ sharp-shooting brings down Pretty Boy Floyd in a gorgeous apple orchard. Dillinger makes an even more thrilling jailbreak at the film’s half-way point. Tommyguns blaze after the feds ambush and chase Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). At a movie theater, everyone in the audience — except Dillinger — looks right, then left, to see if Public Enemy No. 1 is in its midst.
BEST LINE: When one of Dillinger’s gang asks, “Who cares what the public thinks?” Dillinger replies, “I do — I hide out among ’em.” The film broaches the idea of violent criminals as folk heroes, but doesn’t do much with it.
WORST LINE: “Don’t come to Chicago, Johnny!” French Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard starts out well as a fiery flirt as Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette, but gets stuck with too many worried moll clichés.
BODY COUNT: About 11, although it seems like more, with no shortage of sucking chest wounds.
FLESH FACTOR: Cotillard offers a glimpse of her nude frame when she beckons Dillinger and “Prince Albert” to join her in the tub.
FASHION STATEMENTS: Opening scenes include those O Brother, Where Art Thou? striped prison pajamas. The film lavishes attention on round sunglasses almost as much as fedoras and pinstripe suits. Successive scenes juxtapose Purvis displaying Dillinger’s wool overcoat as a clue, and Dillinger giving Billie a fur coat, suggesting a close relationship between wardrobe and identity.
MP3-TO-BE: Jazz chanteuse Diana Krall appears in a Chicago club scene to sing “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” which becomes Dillinger and Billie’s song.
CAMEOS: As usual, Mann casts many familiar character actors in modest supporting roles, so look out for Lili Taylor as a female sheriff, Giovanni Ribisi, “Lost’s” Emilie de Ravin, and “The Wire’s” Domenick Lombardozzi and Peter Gerety. Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy get plenty of screen time in clips from 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama (which seems like not so much a movie title as a label). Stephen Lang almost steals the picture as haunting supercop Charles Winstead.
POLITICAL SUBTEXT: This time last year, Bale seemed to endorse warrantless wiretapping to catch criminals in The Dark Knight. This year, Bale sharply repudiates harsh interrogation techniques to catch criminals in Public Enemies.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The first hour or so comes on like, well, gangbusters as Mann sets up compelling scenes of bank theft and manhunt procedures. The script feints at overarching themes, such as the idea that neither Dillinger nor Purvis have a place among “modern” mobsters or feds, but the script leaves both men underdeveloped as characters. Public Enemies almost literally starts with a bang but ends with a whimper.