The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Public Enemies

In the age of the gangsters, the 1930s in Depression-era America, one name stands out above the rest. Sure, there's Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barkers, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis, even Bonnie and Clyde. But the name John Dillinger stands out, Public Enemy No. 1, a gangster, bank robber and possible killer who rose to notoriety in the early 1930s. I reviewed this movie from 2009 that works as a quasi-biography, but rewatched it recently and updated the review. Here were go with 2009's Public Enemies.

It's 1933 in Crown Point, Indiana and John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) has been caught and is just being brought to prison, or so his guards think. Instead, the notorious bank robber has arranged a breakout, a group from his gang busting out with him. With his gang back together again, Dillinger goes on a spree, robbing banks all over Chicago and into Indiana and Wisconsin. The gangster feels the noose tighten around his neck, his notoriety forcing the government's hand in bringing him to justice. The Bureau of Investigation (the FBI) is in its infancy, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) placing a young but capable agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), in charge of bringing Dillinger to justice. Using all the technology available to them, Purvis and his agents do everything they can to capture Dillinger, but can the notorious bank robber continue his crime spree?

This 2009 crime thriller is based off a book of the same name, Public Enemies, by author Bryan Burrough. It's a great read, non-fiction at its best. Burrough's book covers a ton of ground about one of the more violent, turbulent times in American history. The 1930s were the time of the gangster, killers, bank robbers and thieves working on a grand scale with a trail of fast cars, money and riches and dead bodies. Almost every single one of them died bloody and violent. It was a bloody, violent, fascinating time in American history. Originally thought of as a miniseries, Burroughs turned his research into a book. With so many people, places and incidents, the film version was condensed to John Dillinger vs. Melvin Purvis. It's a wise choice because Burroughs' novel as is would have been overwhelming.  

We meet other people, but this is Johnny Depp's movie as he brings John Dillinger to life. A sympathetic character? No, not quite. It is on the other hand a fascinating character to watch. The people who met him during his crime reign of terror, a lot of witnesses said he was charming, likable and friendly. One of the biggest movie stars around, Depp is the best thing going in this movie, making Dillinger a human being, not just a historical name. Depp's Dillinger seems to know the life he's chosen necessitates a live-fast, live-hard mentality. Knowledge of the historical facts or not, you just know Dillinger is leading a doomed life. Sooner or later, his luck will run out. It's really the only character here given any sort of development or characterization too, John given a love interest in Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat check girl from a poor background who falls hard for the gangster, as does he for her. Depp and Cotillard have a believable, real chemistry, giving the story that necessary human element.

Who best to direct a high-arcing crime thriller? How about a director with movies like Heat, Thief, Last of the Mohicans and The Inside to his name? Michael Mann takes the helm here for this style-heavy period piece'Enemies' was filmed on location in Chicago and around the Midwest where much of the story actually took place. Chicago serving as a backdrop for a story is never a bad thing, giving an air of authenticity here. The suits, the hats, the gentleman gangsters, the cars, it all adds up a to a more than worthy time capsule to 1930s Depression-era America. If there's a fault, Mann is too interested in the style, not the substance. He shot with a digital format, giving those scenes an odd, fuzzy look. The editing is fast and hard -- almost schizophrenic -- to the point the movement is hard to follow. Replace some of that aggressive style which doesn't necessarily work with some more story and characterization, and then we're talking.

Depp's movie, no doubt, but in star power, Christian Bale isn't far behind. It's just star power though. Bale is a really good actor, but he's given little to do here. The real-life Melvin Purvis was a bit of a dunce, the movie choosing not to delve too much into that angle. Bale is okay, but it's a necessary, workmanlike part, nothing more. Crudup does a good job with his quick scenes as Hoover, a glorified cameo. As for Dillinger's gang, look for Jason Clarke, Stephen Dorff, David Wenham and another violent gangster, Stephen Graham as maniacal Baby Face Nelson. Stephen Lang is memorable as a Texas lawman, Charles Winstead, brought in to help Purvis, Rory Cochrane playing one of his fellow Chicago FBI agents. There's also quick parts for Channing Tatum, Carey Mulligan and Giovanni Ribisi, and in the case of Tatum and Mulligan, don't blink or you'll miss them. There's plenty of other appearances that probably deserve some attention, but they're not around long enough to mention.

That's one of the weaknesses in Mann's film. Condensing Burroughs' book and doing so with just one focus -- Dillinger -- is still a daunting task. I think it tries to accomplish too much. A year-plus of story, countless speaking roles, and a whole lot of history. Depp is excellent, that's not in question. The action is very exciting, especially the infamous Little Bohemia shootout. Mann does action and does it well. The heavy, automatic machine guns, the B.A.R.s, the heavy pistols, these are guns that pack a punch so there's something visceral and adrenaline-pumping in the action scenes. Something is missing though. It's cool, but the movie doesn't have a ton of heart. The last 30 minutes are the movie at its best, Purvis and the FBI closing in on Dillinger. One what-if scene has Dillinger walking into the Dillinger Squad office, surreal and cool. The same for Dillinger's death, a stylish, cool scene aided by Elliot Goldenthal's musical score.

A good movie but with some serious flaws. It could have been a classic, and maybe with a miniseries it would have been. Still, Johnny Depp is cooler than you.

Public Enemies (2009): ** 1/2 /****
Rewrite of July 2009 review

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