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A generic title for one of the most generic, forgettable biopics in recent memory.  I expected so much more from director Michael Mann, who in films like Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans and The Insider, has shown movie audiences he knows a thing or two about constructing a taut drama.  How then could a story as ripe with cinematic potential as that of 1930ís American gangster and folk anti-hero John Dillinger be so unspeakably dull?

There is absolutely nothing to learn about Dillinger here that wouldnít be more interesting viewed on the History Channel or read off Wikipedia.  What little background we get on the gangster is blurted out by Dillinger in a clumsy bit of exposition.  Thereís no clue as to why he does what he does outside of being good at it.  Why does he let the bank customers keep their cash?  Why does he care?  Was there any reason besides his being good-looking that people regarded him as some kind of movie star?  No, thereíll be no digging into anyoneís psyche here, folks, just a lazy attempt at making a 1930ís-style crime flick in the mould of William Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy or Raoul Walsh.  One thing I wish Mann studied harder from that school was pacing; dry as a bone and utterly without highs or lows to punctuate any of the two and a half hour running time, Public Enemies is one long flatline.  There is one and only one scene of post-modern inspiration and it doesnít arrive until the two hour mark, when the most wanted gangster in America takes a leisurely stroll through the headquarters of the FBI squad dedicated to his capture. 

On paper, Public Enemies sounded like dream casting, Johnny Depp as the charismatic bank robber, Christian Bale as his Ahab, FBI agent Melvin Purvis, and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as Dillingerís galpal, Billie Frechette.  Depp as per usual, turns in an ace performance and looks plenty sharp in the 1930ís suits and fedoras, but even his formidable charm cannot move the mountain of utter flatness that is this script.  Even the revered Bale looks bored out of his mind and acts accordingly, giving a phoned-in reading worse than anything Iíve ever seen from him.  The only sparks in the entire production come from Stephen Graham as the psychotic Baby Face Nelson and Stephen Lang as Purvisí agent,  Charles Winstead, a tightly wound coil of divine retribution you keep waiting to be unleashed, but almost as if the buildup of the character had simply been forgotten, he never gets the chance.  A deliciously oily Billy Crudup is a wry hoot as the pretentious, grasping J. Edgar Hoover, whose zeal at promoting and publicising his newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation wonít be quelled by the prospect of a little illegal police procedure or even torture.  Even these brief sparks of light cannot illuminate the utter dreariness permeating the rest of the film. 

What a waste of an appealing cast and the life story of one of the most glamorous American figures of the last hundred years.  A life story that should have allowed Johnny Depp to dig into his scenes with a knife and fork is a hollow, listless shell of a film with nothing but the name power and valiant efforts of its actors to recommend it.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 29th, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Universal Pictures)

 

 

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