MOVIE REVIEW ★★ ½ Beautiful Backdrops, but Little Intrigue, Little Plot, Little to Care About in FBI Thriller

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Johnny Depp channels his suave and brooding side as criminal anti-hero John Dillinger.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Public Enemies
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr, 23 Minutes
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If ever a movie could capture the romantic and roguish atmosphere of the ’30s, Public Enemies has done it. Directed and produced by Michael Mann (Hancock, Miami Vice, The Aviator), the film is based on the non-fiction book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough. Johnny Depp plays notorious Depression-era criminal John Dillinger, a role in which his suave manner rather than his quirky humour finds the spotlight. Since every criminal anti-hero needs a brooding man of the law to oppose him, a grave and focused Christian Bale plays FBI agent Melvin Purvis. The film focuses on Purvis’s attempts to stop Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd, while also following Dillinger’s life more closely.

The era is portrayed with elegance and the feel is accurate, but the rest of the movie is relatively cliche. Dillinger is the perfect anti-hero — he robs banks and carries a semi-automatic, but he only steals from the rich. He cares about the people and how they think of him because he hides out among the people; he needs their goodwill. He and his men do not kill innocents, and to women he is a perfect gentleman. His girl, Billie Frechette, (played by Marion Cotillard) is a spirited and independent woman of the ’30s, down but not out, fighting to make a place and name for herself. She admirably resists Dillinger’s charming advances, but one knows that in the end, she will give in and become Maid Marion to his Robin Hood. Even Melvin Purvis is relatively predictable — the law man with noble intentions, no aspirations for power, who is calm and capable far beyond his peers. Bale’s dark reserve works perfectly for the role, but in a typecast way that makes the movie less realistic and more a formulaic experiment in story-telling style.

Public Enemies is one of those movies where you know that your beloved anti-hero will make a mistake or try one last job, and the movie becomes a long painful wait for the end. Even with the very excellent performances by the actors and the artistic and technical prowess displayed in the presentation of the story, the plot remained dreary. In fact, the conclusion feels near so early on in the movie that I gained only a mild attachment to the characters. Depp plays Dillinger with a dashing but subdued acceptance of his fate, accepting that one day the lawman will get him. Of course, to Billie, Dillinger talks about how that “one last job” will let them “get away”, maybe to Europe and other exotic locales. It’s no use, I thought in the theater. They should leave now, get away now, before Dillinger is inevitably consumed by the system.

As Dillinger’s friends and associates are systematically taken down by the law, and Billie is taken into custody as bait, the story seems to sink even deeper into a dark pit of inevitability. The story itself is impressively accurate, one of the best jobs that Hollywood has ever done in channeling the past. However, the narration style is an older one, where cars don’t explode, guns are actually reloaded, and the special effects don’t steal the show. While the journey was a beautiful glimpse into an iconic era, the movie-going experience was mediocre at best.