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Public Enemies

Dillinger and his cohorts were fascinating characters but one would never know by their bland presentation in this Michael Mann picture.
Public Enemies covers the 13 months from John Dillinger's jailbreak to his death outside a theatre.
Public Enemies covers the 13 months from John Dillinger's jailbreak to his death outside a theatre.

Michael Mann - the filmmaker known for Thief, Heat and the 1980s TV series Miami Vice - continues his fascination with cops and robbers in this John Dillinger biopic. The bank robber is played by Johnny Depp, the go-to actor for directors wanting a quirky performance. The usual approach in this genre is to play both the law enforcement and the hoodlums as if they are James Cagney - it doesn't matter what's happening in the scene, just as long as you look cool doing it. Depp, though, as is his wont, does things differently. He plays Dillinger as a small-town crook destined to fail because of his arrogance.

Apart from his ego, nearly everything about Dillinger is downplayed. The only scene in which he displays any classic movie-star charm is when he woos Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who works as a check-in girl at a theatre cloakroom. The conversation between the couple has the rat-a-tat-tat of a screwball comedy. For the most part Cotillard is underused, and the film fails to develop her character.

Other seemingly important characters, such as Dillinger's cohorts Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Lester "Baby Face" Nelson (Stephen Graham), also appear and disappear without making much of an impression. Outside of Dillinger, there is very little interest in any of the character's psyches. In Heat, Mann brought together Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and then teased the audience by only giving them one scene together. The director is up to his old tricks again: Christian Bale, as Melvin Purvis, the principled stooge of the crime chief J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), chases Dillinger but shares little screen time with Depp. Unfortunately, Bale seems happy to go through the motions of his performance and there is no tension or suspense in the chase.

The story covers the 13 months from Dillinger's daring jailbreak to his death in 1934. The highlights of the movie are the action sequences by which it is bookended. The opening act promises a movie that aims to strip down the myth of Dillinger, and the finale is supposed to deliver a message about the glamorisation of criminal lifestyles. All it really does, however, is demonstrate how much this film lacks in the entertainment stakes.

Updated: July 30, 2009 04:00 AM

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