"What keeps you up nights, Mr. Dillinger?"
The midwest, 1930s. The Great Depression is at its worst, people are desperate, poverty is rampant, and crime is at an all-time high. The fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation is trying to establish itself under the young but ambitious J. Edgar Hoover. Yet one man is capturing the public eye like no other: John Dillinger, Public Enemy #1.
His daring string of bank robberies combined with his mastery of public relations has made this violent man into a Robin Hood like figure among the poor masses, and his every daring escape from prison is a thumb in the eye of Hoover.
Beginning in media res with John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) leading a daring prison break, Public Enemies follows Dillinger through a criminal career, leading well-organized bank heists, elluding justice, and escaping from the prisons that attempt to hold him. His charismatic interviews with the media and "public relations" ploys, like apparently giving the depositors' money back to them during a heist, make him into a star. This does not sit well with Hoover (Billy Crudup), who dispatches his best invesigator, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), to capture Dillinger at all costs. Similarly introduced in media res taking down violent robber-killer Pretty Boy Flloyd (Channing Tatum), Purvis is shown to be a professional man of moral convictions who becomes increasingly conflicted by Director Hoover's increasingly questionable tactics. The ensuing cat-and-mouse plot explores the gray areas between the criminals and the agents sent to take them down, playing up the antihero status of Dillinger as reflected by the increasingly unethical methods used by the FBI.
Added into this (naturally) is a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard - who is quickly becoming a Diesel Icon in her own right!). The love is portrayed as real and meaningful and affects the story as Dillinger takes needless risks to be with her.
All of this adds up to a story of contrasts between Law and Crime, Heroism and Villainy, Love and Obsession that had the potential to be a truly meaningful exploration of human values and ethics. Unfortunatley, it falls far short of this laudable aim.
This movie had all the pieces it needed for greatness. The casting was perfect. Depp manages to capture Dillinger in an almost spooky way. Bale is haunting as the divived Purvis. Cotillard, as always, is the Diesel Era made flesh. Crudup is frighteningly obsessive as Hoover. The set, prop, and costume design was flawless. As good as the Untouchables in that regard (and oh how this could have become the anti-Untouchables!). The soundtrack was vintage and fitting for the moods. The action scenes were well choreographed and exciting. The camerawork was masterful.
Perhaps they tried to pack too much in. Though of a long run time (144 mins!) the edits and scene changes felt disjointed and lacked cohesion, making it hard to follow the storyline. Many scenes felt cut short or rushed. It was hard to keep up with who was where, when, or why. While this is always a challange in biopics where certain milestones need to be hit and a lot of story needs to be told in a limited number of scenes, there seemed to be a lack of some cohesive element or framing device to hold it together (compare the biopic Chaplin, which had to resort to a fictional ghost writer to overcome this). It felt like there must have been scores of deleted scenes that would have defined relationships, explained plot gaps, demonstrated motivations, shown continuity, or otherwise smoothed over the jarring transitions. Too many scenes relied on throwaway exposition lines to fill these gaps when a three-second scene might have gone miles to make things work. For example, we only find out that Dillinger gives back people's money from a line by gangster Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) when simply adding this scene to one of the bank robery scenes would have given such a great vehicle for establishing Dillinger's Robin Hood image.
The end result comes across like a collection of fantastic moments spliced in a vaguely chronological order; brief flashes of brilliance within a whirlpool a confusion.
All in all, it's a disappointing case of Genius Lost, sort of a "Springtime for Hitler" in reverse where all the right elements never managed to come together. While probably worth your time just for those flashes of brilliance, this is definatly not ending up in the Cap'n's movie collection.
Ratings (1 - 4 stars)
* "Diesel" measures the movie's capture and use of the Diesel era aesthetic and/or ethos, including set design, costumes, culture, music, technology, and direction.
** "Punk" measures how well the movie uses or explores punk themes or values.