Johnny Depp is about as close to an old school movie star as it gets. He’s the kind of guy who can imitate Keith Richards as a pirate and not only get away with it but get an Oscar nomination for his trouble. That’s why when I first saw the posters for “Public Enemies” I practically salivated.
The idea of Depp, who’s made his mark playing crazy people, playing Mr. Public Enemy #1 on the silver screen had limitless possibilities. If only Depp had only showed up. The guy I saw playing Dillinger is a pretty good actor, maybe even displaying flashes of brilliance now and then, but he’s not the Johnny Depp I know. He’s far too subdued, as if he was hoping if he showed some subtlety he may actually get that Oscar. It’s an interesting performance but it hurts the movie.
“Public Enemies” is not a biopic of Dillinger in that it only covers the last couple years of his life. It starts with Dillinger breaking out of an Indiana prison and follows him to Chicago, where he plans to make the most of his “Public Enemy #1″ status robbing banks as he sees fit. However, the FBI has other plans. It appoints special agent Melvin Purvis(a particularly wooden Christian Bale) head of a special task force to capture Dillinger and his associates. Dillinger is finally caught in Tuscon and extradited back to his home state of Indiana, where he is locked up pending trial. Dillinger escapes and heads back to Chicago, where he is given a cold shoulder by former confederates. Dillinger is finally shot and killed by the FBI when he is exiting the Biograph theater, an ambush they orchestrated themselves.
The movie overall makes out a little better than Depp. In fact, there are times it threatens to be a classic. But, like it’s central performance, it too misses it’s mark. To his credit, director Michael Mann (“Ali”, “Collateral”) steers “Public Enemies” from appealing to the youth crowd with anachronistic rock music and hi voltage action and instead aims for a 70’s style epic full of textures, well thought out art design, and superb supporting performances. But, like Depp’s subdued performance, “Public Enemies” misses its mark. As the saying goes, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” One example of what the movie could have been, Mann uses two songs by Otis Taylor, the iconoclastic bluesman known for his use of the banjo and the cello in the blues, in two parts of the movie. The songs add an eerie sadness to the movie that can’t be found anywhere else. That’s what the movie needed.
Hats off to Michael Mann for continuing to take chances in cinema. Endeavoring to make a movie about John Dillinger in 2009 took a lot of guts. But the movie itself is a fairly tame effort under the circumstances
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