DVD Release Date:  December 8, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  July 1, 2009
Rating:  R (for gangster violence and some language)
Genre:  Crime/Drama
Run Time:  140 min.
Director:  Michael Mann
Actors:  Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Channing Tatum, Emilie de Ravin, Giovanni Ribisi

Probably one of Hollywood's greatest chameleons, Johnny Depp forgoes his usual oddball character and fully embraces the role of a real-life criminal, who was something of a folk hero in the Great Depression era, in Public Enemies.

As John Dillinger, the highly skilled and dangerous robber who clearly doesn't mind sticking it to the bank (even if it involves taking out several employees in the process) but never steals from the people, Depp's mix of bravado, determination and swagger can't help but make the locals root for him—and he's the bad guy.

And because the movie is essentially a slice of the last 14 months of Dillinger's life, rather than a psychological profile of why someone ultimately chooses a life of crime, it's also easy for the audience to get swept up in his romanticized story.

After serving a nine-year sentence for a petty crime, Dillinger is finally free. But he's not about to return to a simple civilian life for fear of landing back in handcuffs, so in rather spectacular fashion, he breaks his friends out of prison so they can start their next wave of bank robberies and avoid the police.

Hoping to finally capture Dillinger and lock him up for good (or better yet, execute him) after yet another successful robbery with a high body count to boot, a new FBI crime division has been devised by an opportunistic figurehead named J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Since Hoover has never actually made an arrest himself, a fact that's called his effectiveness as a leader into question, Hoover puts serious pressure on his new agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to employ increasingly cruel methods to grab Dillinger once and for all.

In the interest of justice being served, Purvis agrees, and so the high-energy, cops-and-robbers chase begins. Of course because Hoover is far more interested in making a name for himself than anything else and doesn't care about the toll it's taking on Purvis or anyone else involved, it's yet another reason to cheer Dillinger on, no matter how bad his deeds.

His suave way of wooing one particular woman certainly doesn't hurt his cause either. While dining with his buddies, Dillinger notices a beautiful girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, recent Oscar winner for La Vie En Rose). After she finishes dancing with another guy, he quickly moves in. While we're not exactly sure why he comes on to her like gangbusters, she's a little reluctant about his fast and furious pursuit. Only mere minutes after meeting, he flat out admits he's a bank robber and asks her to come away with him for an adventure.

Wondering what he could possibly see in her, a poor coat-check girl with a three-dollar dress, she wisely proceeds with caution. "But I don't know anything about you," she says. Then without missing a beat, Depp gets ready for his close-up (a favorite camera move of director Michael Mann's throughout the movie), looks at her longingly and says, "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you. What else do you need to know?"

Having someone he wants to take care of—and protect—reveals a different, softer side of Dillinger. But it's still not enough for him to abandon the thrill of the chase and take a desk job. What's unfortunate, however, is these same off-the-clock details are never extended to anyone else. Virtually every other character is distinctly one note, which is frustrating, particularly in Bale's case. He's a great actor with very little to do as the requisite workaholic, who occasionally has to look irritated when Dillinger has escaped yet again.

Fortunately, what's lost in character development is almost made up for in style. Getting each detail of the era just right, Mann's work is visually stunning. And unlike this summer's big blockbusters like Transformers and Wolverine, the action scenes are gritty and realistic, which isn't always easy to watch, but is far more authentic—especially in HD format. There's also plenty of emotional resonance that gives this gangster film a heartbeat, particularly in the scenes between Depp and Cotillard, who have great chemistry.

But for those hoping for a flick that provides clear lines between good and evil, Public Enemies isn't that movie. While it provides timely food for thought on issues like the role of police enforcement and the use of extreme torture methods in capturing criminals, it never provides any hard and fast answers and essentially leaves it up to the viewer to decide what's wrong and what's right. And in the case of John Dillinger and everyone involved and invested in his case, the question of whether crime does pay is still an intriguing one, given the story's outcome.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Social drinking and cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity:  There's very little profanity, aside from one use of the "f" word. The Lord's name is also misused on several occasions.
  • Sex/Nudity:  There's one quick love scene between John and Billie with no nudity. In another scene, Billie is shown taking a bath, but the murky water obscures a view of anything gratuitous.
  • Violence:  Given the genre of movie, it's probably no surprise that violence is where the bulk of the film's R rating comes from. There are several scenes with extended, brutal gunfire and a high body count as a result. Close-ups of bloodied victims are prevalent, and there's a realism to the violence that makes it more shocking than your average flick.

 

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.