The reason to see Public Enemies is the same as the reason to see any Johnny Depp movie: Johnny Depp. The story is engaging enough — there's plenty of sputtering machine gun shoot-outs and exciting escape plans and dashes of romance — but the actual enjoyment of watching this movie comes from Johnny Depp in a role he's naturally gifted at playing: the dark, mysterious rebel.
Depp plays John Dillinger, a bank robber who has gained a certain celebrity status with the public. His charm and calm cleverness have made him and his gang quite rich and have kept him from being permanently captured. Soon, however, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) focuses his attention on Dillinger, his "Public Enemy No. 1." Hoping to use Dillinger's capture as a way to elevate his Bureau of Investigation into the national police force, Hoover puts his dashing agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) on the case. The majority of the movie is a back-and-forth dance with Purvis pursuing Dillinger and Dillinger eluding Purvis's grasp. Consistently thwarted by the sly criminal, Purvis's desperation to catch Dillinger leads to some extreme measures. Violence, gunfire, and bloodshed ensue as Purvis and his team start to close in on their enemy. For more of my thoughts on the movie, read more.
It's mind-boggling to see how relatively easy it is for Dillinger and his gang to pull off these crimes. In our era of constant surveillance and advanced technology, these guys wouldn't get three feet without someone snapping a picture or video with a camera phone. The movie is set during a more trusting time period, and one that is — for better or worse — far behind us. At the same time, we may have more in common with that era than we think. As we experience a recession, we watch a story in which the protagonist robs banks in the midst of the Great Depression — should we be rooting for this guy? Depp makes us want to, that's for sure, but what with all the bloodshed, it's hard to always think that what Dillinger's doing is cool. Public Enemies actually makes us think about this stuff, and making us think is more than most of the big Summer movies can boast.
The movie also features good performances by an impressive cast, with Marion Cotillard standing out as Dillinger's lady love, Billie Frechette. She is perfectly paired with Depp, her bright eyes and lively charisma nicely complementing Depp's dark and intense steadiness. The two make a sexy duo and their scenes together are some of my favorite of the whole movie. They're both soulful actors, interested more in substance than style. Some scenes that don't include either of these actors are all shiny cars, slicked-back hair, and terrible accents, making me yearn for Depp or Cotillard to be back on screen.
The actual filmmaking, however, made me queasy. I know Michael Mann is an intense director but I hate the herky-jerky camerawork and the random close-ups on things in this movie. The other distracting element is the actors' makeup, their faces clay-like, their lips bright pink. It's hard to become immersed in this world when the streaks of blush constantly remind us that this is all make-believe. But aside from these things, the film overall is an intriguing thrill-ride with a little bit of heart and the sharp, intelligent Johnny Depp leading us through it.
Photos courtesy of Universal Studios