Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale. Directed by Michael Mann. Rated R for gangster violence and some language. 140 minutes.
REVIEW BY DANIEL M. KIMMEL
By the time Mafia stories had gone from “The Godfather” to “The Sopranos,” it didn’t matter that the latter was a landmark television series. It meant that it was time for the gangster film to reinvent itself again. With “The Road To Perdition” (2002), it seemed a new cycle might be beginning, going back to the “classic” gangster era of the 1920’s and early ‘30s. With PUBLIC ENEMIES – even the title echoes the 1931 “Public Enemy” that made James Cagney a star – Michael Mann tells the story of the end of that era.
We first meet John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) seemingly on his way back to prison. If so, it won’t be for long. Dillinger was at the height of his notoriety as “Public Enemy Number One,” a bank robber who ran through the Midwest but made a point of letting the bystanders keep their money. It made him seem a Robin Hood to some, although we see his just how casually brutal he could be.
Dillinger is riding high, but his days are numbered. On one side is the Bureau of the Investigation whose administrator, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), is trying to get support for wider national jurisdiction for his crime fighters. He puts his top man, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), in charge of the Dillinger case. On the other side is what would later be called “organized crime.” The new crime bosses don’t need freelancers like Dillinger bringing on the heat.
While Hoover and Purvis make much of their “scientific” methods for catching criminals, in many ways they are as violent as their quarry. The gun battles seem more like warfare than crimebusting, with little regard for civilians caught in the crossfire. When Hoover orders Purvis to “take the white gloves off” (an explicit reference to Fascist Italy), things get out of control, as with the beating of Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) in an attempt to get her to talk.
All this leads to the famous shooting in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater, which can only be called an execution. No attempt is made to apprehend Dillinger and take him into custody. After all, when it happened before, he easily played the system before getting away again.
The film has some solid performances, yet we don’t empathize with Dillinger (as we do with so many gangster protagonists) nor do we fear him. He’s more of a case study, a dinosaur whose time is coming to an end and doesn’t realize it. Depp shows us the charm he could use when he wanted, but also shows us the thug. It may be true to life, but it keeps as at a distance. As the “hero,” Bale’s Purvis is even less appealing. He’s sometimes troubled by his job, but he also enjoys killing the bad guys a bit more than he should.
“Public Enemies” is a thinking man’s gangster movie. While there’s plenty of action for those looking for a shoot-‘em-up, it’s a decidedly cold-blooded affair.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.