John Dillinger’s reign as America’s most-wanted bank robber (or one of them) only spanned 10 months — from the fall of 1933, when he pulled his first such heist, to the summer of 1934, when federal agents shot him down in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Still, Dillinger has proved to be a durable celebrity desperado. Along with such fellow bank-job specialists as Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson (all of whom came to a bloody end the same year Dillinger did), he continues to embody the “public enemy” years of the Great Depression, when heartland gangsters became figures of public fascination by smiting the hated banks and repeatedly eluding the little-loved coppers who pursued them.
Dillinger’s brief career has been the subject of several films. The latest is director Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” a beautifully made picture that sets out to portray the famed outlaw as both a hard-bitten criminal and a passionate romantic, and is undone in the attempt. [movieperson id=”16504″]Johnny Depp[/movieperson] brings effortless star power to the role of Dillinger, and he’s a charmer in the scenes in which his character is pursuing an on-the-run, soul-mate love affair with a Chicago coat-check girl named Billie Frechette (the superb [movieperson id=”163517″]Marion Cotillard[/movieperson]). The sequence in which Dillinger first meets Billie, in a nightclub that’s all shadow and glow, with Diana Krall’s luminous rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird” whispering off the soundtrack (and Krall lip-synching her own performance on the bandstand), is a glorious showpiece. And when Dillinger later tries to reassure Billie about their very iffy future with the grand line, “I’m gonna die an old man in your arms,” it evokes the expansive romance of an earlier screen era.
But Depp’s charm works against him in portraying Dillinger as a cold-blooded gunman — he lacks the requisite sense of menace, no matter how energetically he goes through the motions of bullet-fueled mayhem. Still, the motions — the jailbreaks, robberies and ferocious shootouts, with tommy guns barking and gangsters in their new Ford V-8s leaving underpowered lawmen in the dust — are spectacularly well-staged. There’s an opening escape from the Indiana State Penitentiary in which the bleak, towering walls of the prison, and the flawless blue sky they can’t quite blot out, convey feelings of both hopeless confinement and beckoning freedom in a single resonant image. Equally striking is the sequence in which Dillinger is recaptured and flown back to Indiana, where he’s met at the airport by a roiling herd of reporters and cameramen, whose smoke-belching flashguns light up the windy night with a lurid magnesium glare. (It feels like we’re present at the birth of paparazzi journalism.) Mann and Dante Spinotti, the great cinematographer with whom he worked on such movies as “The Insider” and “Heat,” opted for HD cameras in shooting the film, and digital has rarely been used to such rich effect.
The movie’s large cast is thronged with first-rate character actors, chief among them Stephen Dorff and Jason Clarke as Dillinger henchmen; Stephen Graham as the unhinged Baby Face Nelson; Stephen Lang as the somber G-man Charles Winstead; and especially Peter Gerety as a wonderfully windy mob lawyer, and Billy Crudup, who plays J. Edgar Hoover, the scheming head of the nascent FBI, as a prissy, self-important fraud. John Ortiz also has a few good scenes as Chicago mob enforcer Phil D’Andrea. (It was the mob’s nationwide criminal aspirations that spelled the end of the highly localized bank-robbing fraternity.)
It’s too bad Channing Tatum is so briefly utilized as Pretty Boy Floyd (blown away at the beginning of the film); and it’s really too bad that [movieperson id=”3146″]Christian Bale[/movieperson], in the key role of Melvin Purvis, the indefatigable federal agent on Dillinger’s trail, is such a vacuum whenever he’s onscreen. The character is supposed to be tight-lipped and undemonstrative — an over-wound “scientific” crime-fighter; but Bale is hard-pressed to inject any life into this bloodless construct. Depp’s Dillinger, even as conceptually conflicted as he is, merits a more vibrant adversary.
The movie is based on a true-crime book by Bryan Burrough, and it sometimes feels encumbered by all the research and scrupulous location-scouting that have gone into it. But then it also fudges facts and chronology with surprising abandon. (To note just one instance, Nelson and Floyd are depicted here as pre-deceasing Dillinger, when in fact both outlived him — although not by much.) This might be an annoyance only to historians if the movie had more dynamic sweep — if it were able to convincingly fuse its endless shootouts with its determinedly tender love story. But the action, however splendidly choreographed, begins to seem rote after a while (the movie runs nearly two and a half hours), and the overabundance of characters taking part in it is sometimes confusing. By the time the end draws near, the love story has become the last element providing any human interest — everything else is clamor and blast. But then Billie disappears, to be awkwardly replaced by another woman (Leelee Sobieski) for Dillinger’s big night out at the Biograph. And then, much worse, the movie ends with a line of dialogue so startlingly inane that it leaves the picture flapping on the screen like a punctured balloon. It may be the most brutal moment in the whole film.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Public Enemies.”
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