June 25, 2009 / 2:10 AM / 10 years ago

"Public Enemies" a missed opportunity

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Michael Mann’s John Dillinger movie “Public Enemies” is slow to heat up and never quite comes to a boil.

Cast member Johnny Depp poses at the premiere of the movie "Public Enemies" at the Mann Village theatre in Westwood, California June 23, 2009. The movie opens in the U.S. July 1. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The elements are certainly here with the always charismatic Johnny Depp as the Depression-era bank robber and, in some quarters, idolized Robin Hood and Marion Cotillard, off her Oscar win, as his lady friend. But Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman never crack the meaning of John Dillinger.

The film veers between fact and legend, sticking mostly with facts but still unable to bring its protagonist into focus as either an amiable sociopath or a true antihero. He winds up being just a guy who robs banks, which is probably all he ever was, so why such a lavish production? John Milius accomplished as much if not more with “Dillinger” in 1973 at the cost of probably two scenes in “Public Enemies.”

Since there’s nothing in the marketplace right now like “Public Enemies,” Universal should recoup the reported $80 million budget between domestic and international box office. But the film lacks the juice promised by the teaming of such extraordinary filmmakers with a cast as large as a Hooverville encampment.

There is both too much going on here and not enough: Multiple jail breaks, frequent bank robberies, deadly shootouts with G-Men, bodies everywhere. But you’d probably have to read the source material, a book by Bryan Burrough, to understand the significance of many scenes.

Dillinger breaks out of “escape proof” Crown Point, Ind., jail, driving off in the female sheriff’s (Lili Taylor) own car. The shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin is a fiasco for the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, which allowed Dillinger to escape.

Incensed G-Man Melvin Purvis (a stoic Christian Bale) figures Dillinger will foolishly head back to Chicago, so his men watch the apartment of Dillinger’s half-French dame Billie Frechette (Cotillard) around the clock. She still eludes them. Purvis’ men finally do arrest her, but Dillinger drives away from the scene without anyone noticing him. This sets up the famed betrayal of the “Lady in Red,” which was actually a yellow dress.

So many of the era’s personalities parade before the cameras — look, there’s Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) getting shot at long range by Purvis; there’s famed bad guys Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) and “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Garrett) plotting jobs with Dillinger; there’s crime boss Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) growing tired of Dillinger’s juvenile shenanigans; there’s young J. Edgar Hoover (a stiff Billy Crudup) just getting his feet wet!

You can’t keep them all straight and a muddy soundtrack doesn’t help. Depp got his own sound technician according to the end credit roll yet you still can’t hear him. Between mumbled lines and busy music cues much of the film’s dialogue is indistinct.

The anticipated points are made about how both Dillinger and Hoover track their own publicity. The Dillinger-Frechette love match is built up into something it probably never was. Indeed the woman, Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski), Dillinger fatefully attends his last picture show with is believed to be his new girlfriend at the time.

What’s missing is an investigation into character. Who are all these people? Why do they matter to us now?

The great Depression bank robbing movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” to which “Public Enemies” will undoubtedly be compared, kept the focus narrow and intense and somehow spoke to its counter-culture era. “Public Enemies” sprawls everywhere with too many characters and winds up being mostly a history lesson unrelated to anything in the zeitgeist.

Mann oversees top-drawer work by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, production designer Nathan Crowley and tremendous second unit personnel. The strategies, setups and shoot-outs are terrifically staged, but the human element goes missing.

Editing by Dean Gooodman at Reuters

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