By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2009)
If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly contemporizes this otherwise old school “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of crumpled bills and loose change . “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”
I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savoring the vicarious thrill of watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up bailout money funded by my hard-earned tax dollars. And in context of current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.
Mann focuses his story on the last year or so of Dillinger’s short life (he was 31 when he was fatally ambushed by FBI agents while exiting a movie screening at Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934). The film literally opens with a bang, with Dillinger and his gang shooting their way out of a Lima, Ohio prison in 1933.
While this is not the first crime thriller to open with a prison break (one of Mann’s prime influences, Jean-Pierre Melville came to mind as I watched), it is an exciting and well-mounted sequence, bestowed with a jolting hyper-realism through Mann’s use of hi-def video. Unfortunately, with the exception of a pulse-pounding reenactment of a pre-dawn gun battle between Dillinger’s gang and FBI agents at the remote Little Bohemia Lodge, the remainder of the film never quite lives up to the crackling promise of its opening salvo.
There’s only one thing a notorious bank robber wants to do as soon as he busts out of stir (hint: the film’s catchphrase is “I rob banks.”). OK…maybe there are two things. Rising star Marion Cotillard (who made a splash last year as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose) plays Dillinger’s French-Native American girlfriend, Billie Frechette with a sexy earthiness that spices up her scenes with Depp (although she is not given much to do beyond playing a stalwart gangster’s moll).
When he’s not wooing Billie, Dillinger spends most of his time robbing banks and staying one step ahead of his arch-nemesis, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s golden boys back in the fledgling days of the FBI (Billy Crudup hams it up as Hoover). Liverpudlian Stephen Graham appears to be having the time of his life as Dillinger’s most well-known associate, the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (I hailed Graham as a new talent to watch in my 2007 review of This is England).
Look fast for Diana Krall’s cameo as a nightclub singer (crooning a smoky “Bye Bye Blackbird”). And of course there is an appearance by “the lady in red” (Branka Katic)-although apparently it was the “lady in the white blouse and orange skirt” who led the unwitting Dillinger to his doom.
It’s a good thing that the charismatic Depp is present, and that the film is stylishly executed in Mann’s fastidious manner, because, had lesser artists been involved, the rote cops and robbers story lurking at its core would be exposed. Although Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman recycle the narrative device that made his 1995 crime thriller Heat so compelling (i.e., blurring the line of moral demarcation by fleshing out pursuer and quarry with equal import) it all feels sort of perfunctory in this outing.
And, at the risk of being accused of talking apples and oranges, I felt that Bale and Depp’s Big Scene together failed to ignite sparks like Pacino and DeNiro’s face-off did in the aforementioned film. Since Mann has established himself as an auteur, I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that, relative to his own standards, this is not his best work (although it’s still superior to most of the summer fare currently grinding away at the multiplexes). That being said, if you are a Depp and/or Mann fan, you still may want to give it a shot.