Now playingWith unforgettable performances ranging from a comic pirate on the high seas to a character from Tim Burton’s dark imagination, Johnny Depp is well on his way to future film legend status. In “Public Enemies,” the latest gangster movie to join the ranks of a much-glorified genre, Depp adds to his repertoire, this time playing a smoldering version of the elusive bank robber John Dillinger. Depp is easily the most watchable character in the film, especially as he’s whipping around an authentic Tommy gun with a rat-a-tat-tat that simply can’t be faked. No wonder he’s the leader of the pack.
Unfortunately, Depp chose to take on a Midwestern mumble of sorts that obscures some of his speech, especially towards the beginning of the film when the supporting characters are introduced. And since all of the men are draped head to toe in 1930’s era suits and hats (and oddly, too much makeup), it’s quite difficult to tell them apart, leaving the viewer a bit confused as to who’s doing what. But after awhile you just have to go with what you’ve got -- a Western in wool suits, seething with dark undertones and tension- – and all coming down to the final shootout.
Though director and co-writer Michael Mann nails the seediness of a classic gangster film, he seems to have done so at the expense of character development. Who is the wounded soul behind Dillinger’s “I take what I want, when I want it” persona? Sure, he’s more than happy to stick it to the fat cat bankers by emptying out their vaults at gunpoint, but there’s got to be something more that motivates him to be the best of worst -- right? As the bodies around him pile up, he’s not the easiest guy to root for.
But the film’s lack of character building is also an advantage because it allows for a sort of welcome ambivalence towards who’s “good” and who’s “bad.” Yes, Dillinger is cheered on by the Depression-weary public and gets his pick of the pretty girls, but he is also a violent bully obsessed with celebrity. His nemesis is uptight G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who utilizes the latest in crime-fighting techniques, but is really just a frustrated pawn who grows increasingly reckless and wrongheaded as he is pushed by his publicity hound boss J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), the only truly evil character in the film.
Rest assured, “Public Enemies” is not just a shoot ‘em up gangster movie with no heart. It’s just that the film’s heart builds -- slow and steady -- in thick layers of somber hues, smoky rooms, gloomy music and glum expressions of desperate men clinging to their illusions. Even the addition of Dillinger’s love affair with French-Indian beauty Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), is ominous and heavy. The film may feel more like a slow punch in the gut than a rollicking “Bonnie and Clyde"-style adventure, but it certainly holds its own among the genre.
Although you may not come out of the theater understanding why John Dillinger became a gangster in the first place, by the end of “Public Enemies” you will certainly know who and what he’s willing to die for. And, really, that’s all you need to know to truly understand someone, isn’t it?