Have you ever seen a film that was excellently directed, filled with fantastic actors and blessed with a great screenplay yet was still not very memorable? Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale is one of these movies. It is a really good movie but may leave you, like it left me, feeling “so what?”
John Dillinger, portrayed by Johnny Depp (perhaps America’s best actor), remains a well known name even more than seventy years after his death. He earned a reputation as America’s premier and most audacious bank robber. He also earned a margin of respect by some among the public by not also taking money from customers during his bank robberies. In 1933, bank robbers could often evade the law by escaping to a nearby state. The solution at that time was to make crimes where felons crossed state lines federal crimes. Unfortunately, in 1933, the FBI (known as “The Bureau of Investigations”) was a brand new organization directed by some untested newcomer called J. Edgar Hoover. As you probably know, during The Great Depression and the era of Prohibition, the nexus of crime in the United States was in Chicago, which was effectively ruled by brazen mobsters like Al Capone. Early in the movie we watch Director Hoover (played by Billy Crudup) send Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to Chicago. Purvis’ job is to succeed where others have failed by bringing John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1, to justice. It was a tall order and not for the faint of heart, because his investigators were likely to die in a barrage of bullets.
Bale must have been between Batman movies and Depp must have been between Pirates of the Caribbean Movies. All this is for the good because both actors are at the top of their form and it is fun to watch them act together. While they naturally get the most screen time, the whole supporting cast is excellent too and blend in forming a seamless whole. Marion Cotillard plays Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frenchette, a simple hat check girl whose life had thus far been pedestrian, but who cannot help but find herself drawn to Dillinger. The 1930s has probably not been so well realized on film since Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in The Sting. The movie is truly a feast of great acting married with impeccably realized and historically accurate scenery. It is also, as you might expect, quite bloody. The gangsters’ gun of choice was a submachine gun, which was effective at wreaking butchery very quickly.
The movie follows Dillinger, his gang of associates and his girlfriend on chases that becomes ever more perilous for Dillinger as the feds slowly close in on him. There is lots of violence in this movie, but by current standards it is not particularly gruesome. There are no heads exploding or limbs butchered off, but lots and lots of bullets, dead or wounded people and houses torn up with gunshot. These scenes are all brilliantly captured. The movie is also interspersed with much period era music. Millions must have been spent on costume alone, given the many scenes with large numbers of extras. The directing and cinematography are first class, with many medium shots and steady cams helping to make you feel like you are part of the action.
Yet at its root this story is a one trick pony. Even if we forgot the history, we have a sense that Dillinger will be hunted down by the FBI and eventually meet a bloody end. We suspect that lots of people will die painful deaths before he is killed, and the movie amply justifies our suspicions. So we are left with a story which, at its essence, is about a headstrong John Dillinger finally being cornered by the determined and obsessed Melvin Purvis and his operatives and not much else. The only real suspense is whether Dillinger’s girlfriend will survive as well, given that the high mortality rate of anyone close to Dillinger.
So this film falls into the nebulous realm of “really good film” with no compelling reason to watch it other than to enjoy great acting and directing. If you are a Depp or Bale fan, you should not miss the film. However, if you are particularly choosy about movies that you see, there is probably something out there worthier of your time than Public Enemies. Given what is playing at the box office at the moment, Public Enemies is likely a top choice for adults.
3.4 on my 4 point scale. This is a film that manages to check all the checkboxes except perhaps the one that is most important: a film that leaves you more enriched and enlightened than when you entered into the theater.