July 9, 2009

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Public Enemies (R)
Johnny Depp is all suave criminal coolness as John Dillinger, legendary bank robber, in Public Enemies, a surprisingly dull cops and robbers movie.

Dillinger (Depp) is in his heyday — robbing banks and winning the hearts of the people (which tells you something about how much worse the Great Depression is than our current economic blues). In the opening scenes, a woman whose house Dillinger and his men stop at on their way out of town after a bank robbery asks him to take her with him, mister — a life on the run with a criminal looking more appealing than life on a dusty farm with a small child. Dillinger is one of several headline-grabbing celebrity criminals of the early 1930s, like Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and the possibly crazed Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Attempting to counteract these scoundrels’ appearance of invincibility is J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), still at the beginning of his rise to power and still trying to make the F.B.I. a professional crime-fighting organization rather than a group of federal head-crackers. He picks as his Dillinger point man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a determined agent who plans to catch and prosecute Dillinger through the force of modern investigation.

Modern investigation here being a far cry from your C.S.I. and your Law & Order kind of police work, which frequently has the cops making incorrect assumptions before (at 10 minutes before the end of the hour) they finally get their bad guy but generally has them doing honest competent police work. Here, these early-model G-men regularly let Dillinger slip away or confront him when the odds are against them. Even Dillinger’s sweetheart Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is able to outfox these federal flatfoots and eventually Purvis does have to bring in some Texas head-crackers to get the job done.

But this part of the story — the modernization of a federal crime-fighting force — is in the background. So is the part of the story that shows how, as Dillinger and other bank robbers garnered more attention, they made life difficult for their compatriots in organized crime who found themselves getting caught in the net of new laws about interstate crime. And the general story of how and why Dillinger, Floyd and the like became media darlings is in the background. Along with the story of how the Depression figured into Dillinger’s fame. And the story of how fugitive criminals could just hang out in a big city like Chicago by paying off the police with no greater wrath coming down on them. And the status of Hoover, a man who would be able to cow presidents (allegedly) in decades to come but is here shown getting spanked by a congressional oversight committee. How Dillinger picked his banks, why they were as poorly guarded as they seemed to be, the difference between being chased by local and federal lawmen — all the interesting details about the characters, the times, the crime, the criminals, the investigators are in the background. We get sprinklings of these things, nuggets, tantalizing bits. It’s like getting half an hors d’oeuvre at a wine tasting but never quite catching the platter for another bite.

So what’s in the foreground? Mostly, our focus is the love story between Dillinger and Billie, the fumblings of Melvin Purvis (played, not surprisingly, like Batman with less growling) and some of the most boring car chases, bank robberies and investigators-on-the-hunt scenes that have ever been filmed. Not even Tommy guns and those Dick Tracy 1930s stand-and-shoot Packards make the chases interesting. Situations with this much inherent possibility for heart-pounding action and “you’ll never take me alive, copper” violence would seem to be impossible to make boring. They would seem to defy even tiresome shaky-cam photography and bad lighting. Time and thought and effort must have gone in to making sequences this potentially fun as flat and dull as they turned out here. “When will this stupid car chase end?” is not something you can have your audience thinking during a movie all about bad guys chasing good guys.

With nearly two and a half hours to fill, the movie gives us lots of would-be action scenes that feel ponderous. And just in case the action manages to punch through the blah and show a few rays of excitement (some of the bank robberies are kind of fun, though not nearly as slick or exciting as the trailer implies), the stilted dialogue usually smacks it right back down. It’s natural to have catchy little lines in the trailer — Dillinger explaining his untouchableness to Billie by saying he can hit any bank he wants at any time but the Feds have to watch all the banks all the time — but nearly everything Depp’s given to say sounds like it’s supposed to be put on a movie poster. It’s exhausting, listening to this many quotable lines where natural dialogue should go.

Depp and Cotillard look great and certainly give a serious performance their best effort. (As does Bale to some extent, though his character seems to be more about looking the part than filling in personality and motivation.) But the movie, full of such promise in its subject matter, never gets going. Clearly meant to be an explosive firework of a grown-up cops-and-robbers movie, Public Enemies is just a damp sparkler. C

Rated R for gangster violence and some language. Directed by Michael Mann and written by Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann and Ann Biderman (from the book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough), Public Enemies is two hours and 23 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.