Tuesday, July 7, 2009


“Miami Vice” creator Michael Mann recreates the Golden Age of Bank Robbery during the Great Depression in 1933 with his latest thriller “Public Enemies” (**** out of ****) and gangsters riddle the screen with gunfire galore. This depiction of the rise to prominence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the demise of John Dillinger is based on bestseller author Bryan Burrough’s non-fiction book. “Pirates of the Caribbean” superstar Johnny Depp is cast against type as Dillinger, the sympathetic Robin Hood style desperado who acquired notoriety as ‘Public Enemy Number One.’ “Batman Begins” sensation Christian Bale impersonates the soft-spoken FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis who brought Dillinger down. Although they drive vintage automobiles, blast away with vintage Thompson .45 caliber submachine guns, and wear vintage apparel, the characters in “Public Enemies” prove to be just as enthralling as any of Mann’s characters in his contemporary movies. Unfortunately, Mann doesn't always hit the bullseye for historical accuracy. Many of the events are reversed. For example, Pretty Boy Floyd died after John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis did not shoot him with a high-powered rifle. Similarly, Baby Face Nelson did not died before John Dillinger, but he perished long afterward. Moviegoers will cherish historical accuracy are in for several more surprises, but then "Public Enemie" is just a movie. Suffice to say, anybody who has read anything about Dillinger will not be surprised at anything that happens in this biographical epic.

“Public Enemies” opens with an interesting shoot-out at the Indiana State Penitentiary with a manacled John Dillinger getting escorted into the grim looking prison. This is the first of several surprises that occur for people who don’t know much about ‘Johnny’ Dillinger. Afterward, Dillinger and his gang arrive in East Chicago where they have bribed the local constabulary to ignore them. They also receive some favors from the local bookmakers that operate a coast-to-coast wire service link-up that relates to gambling on horse races. Mann shows Dillinger robbing banks and playing ‘spin the dial’ with bank presidents. Dillinger has men stationed out in front of the banks as inconspicuous sentinels with weapons concealed under their coats. Dillinger’s closest associate Red (Jason Clarke of “Death Race”) keeps the stopwatch running and knows when to wheel up to the front of the bank. Dillinger doesn’t take money from any of the common folk in the bank. He steals only from the banks and then he takes hostages for a ride with him to ensure that the local authorities don’t open fire on him when his gang cruises out of town.

All of this publicity aggravates FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Bill Crudup of “Watchmen” in an awesome look-alike performance) and he assigns Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale of “Terminator: Salvation”) to manage the Chicago Office with orders to capture Dillinger. Purvis’ shooting of legendary bank robber Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd (Channing Tatum of “Step Up”) in an orchard is what brought him to J. Edgar’s attention. Purvis doesn’t take long to realize that Hoover’s smart young men aren’t adequate for the task, and he requests help from the Dallas FBI Office. Several tough-looking, no-nonsense customers show up in Chicago who look like they were born with badges. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang of “Tombstone”) and his cohorts stand out from the young, buttoned down types that surround Purvis. The FBI relies on telephone wiretaps and scientific analysis to monitor the Dillinger gang. When they cannot catch the gangsters squawking on the phone, they resort to more brutal methods, such as delaying medical treatment to a wounded bank robber to learn the whereabouts of the gangsters.

Dillinger picks up coat check girl Evelyn ‘Billie’ Frechette (Oscar winning Parisian actress Marion Cotillard of "La Vie en Rose") and cannot get her out of his system even when she walks off and leaves him after their initial encounter. Dillinger pledges himself to her, but she warns him that she doesn’t want to watch him die. Things take a turn for the couple when Dillinger is captured in Tucson, Arizona, as Frechette and he are about to take a bath together and the authorities fly him back to Indiana. Dillinger’s escape from Indiana is a part of criminal history. He wielded a fake wooden gun and bluffed his way out of jail. Later, he hooks up with Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham of “Gangs of New York”) to knock over a ripe bank in Sioux Falls with $800-thousand in its vault. Everything backfires on Dillinger and Nelson. They lug off barely $30-grand and then Purvis and his men surround the inn where the gang has taken refuge and a major firefight erupts with several gangsters dying in a blaze of gunfire.

Johnny Depp bears a closer resemblance to John Dillinger than Christian Bale does to Melvin Purvis. Bale is actually taller than Purvis. Dillinger was idolized by many during the Depression and he strove to stay in the limelight so that the common people would harbor him when he was on the lam. According to Mann’s version of history, Dillinger fell not only because of the persistence of Melvin Purvis and the FBI, but also because Dillinger brought too much heat onto his fellow criminals in the coast-to-coast racing rackets after Congress passed legislation against interstate crime. The cast is first-rate throughout “Public Enemies.” Mind you, “Public Enemies” doesn’t lionize Dillinger to the degree that director Arthur Penn did for Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in “Bonnie & Clyde,” but we get glimpses of Dillinger’s celebrity status when the Feds fly him back to Indiana.

“Public Enemies” ranks as the best gangster picture since Brian de Palma’s “The Untouchables.” The real curiosity is the R-rating that “Public Enemies” drew when it doesn’t contain half as much violence and gore as the most recent “Punisher” actioneer. The shoot-outs are noisy but relatively bloodless, though there is an interrogation scene where a detective roughs up a woman. Incidentally, many of the scenes were lensed on the actual locations where this story transpired.