Of all the actors that could have been cast as notorious bank robber John Dillinger none make more sense than Johnny Depp. Look! They even have the same initials!
In all seriousness, though, throughout his career Depp has shown a continual affinity toward playing almost all varieties of outlaw characters. Early in his career he starred as a '50s-era greaser outlaw in John Waters' "Cry Baby."
In 1994 he played one of the earliest of "outlaw" filmmakers in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood." Four years later Depp would portray one of his heroes, the outlaw gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." He'd finish out the decade by bringing to life another countercultural outlaw hero: Jack Kerouac in Chuck Workman's fantastic beat generation documentary "The Source."
The last decade saw Depp the Outlaw regularly. In 2001 Depp played another real-life criminal, cocaine kingpin George Jung in "Blow." Depp would earn an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of pirate outlaw Captain Jack Sparrow in the wildly popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy. He would have less success with outlaw aristocrat John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester in the indie flick "The Libertine." Depp bounced back, though, with his characterization of an outlaw barber in his last picture, "Sweeney Todd."
And of course there are outlaws in his upcoming pictures. Next year he'll do Thompson again in an adaptation of The Rum Diary. And the posters are already up for Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland in which Depp acts as the children's literature outlaw classic the Mad Hatter.
Thus it's a tremendous disappointment that Depp, outlaw actor supreme, would find himself in such a superficial picture that commits such an injustice toward an outlaw icon. Dillinger deserves a far better film than Michael Mann's "Public Enemies."
The picture begins with Dillinger's escape from prison in 1933. Forget any back-story or explanation into the creation of Dillinger the Bank Robber. Mann just jumps right into the action and drops us into the peak of Dillinger's crime spree and its counterattack, the formation of J. Edgar Hoover's (Billy Crudup) Federal Bureau of Investigations. Hoover dispatched Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale,) who'd had previous success taking down "Pretty Boy" Floyd, to go after Dillinger.
During this period Dillinger met Billie Frechette (Marion Cotilliard,) a pretty coat check clerk. The film then concocts a stereotypical romance between the two of them that's rather hard to swallow.
As new laws are passed empowering the federal government to fight crime across state lines the traditional gangster contacts that had once supported Dillinger begin to retract away from him. The laws that are passed to catch him could be used to challenge their profitable crime syndicates. The walls are closing in around him and Purvis is more determined than ever to nab Public Enemy #1.
The film's drama isn't developed enough to produce true dramatic tension. And it doesn't have enough action - or exhilarating enough action - to compete as a pure action film. It's drama-lite/action-lite and thus meets my definition for being considered as a thriller. The film's also inspired by actual people and events from history.
So it falls victim to the exact same problem as the recent Tom Cruise historical thriller "Valkyrie." No tension can be generated from the plot when you know how the story is going to end. Anyone with a basic knowledge of Dillinger knows what happened to him. It's just a matter of waiting for the inevitable execution. A feeling of boredom dominates given the absence of either dramatic or plot-based suspense. It's only punctuated by decent action scenes and Depp being a badass.
I wish just one time - one time! - a director doing a historically-based film would say, "Screw it. Let's make the movie as we wish history had turned out." What if with "Valkyrie" they had made Stauffenberg and company succeed in killing Hitler? How cool would that have been? Then the film would be an alternative history thriller - a genre that has yet to be invented.
So what if Mann decided that Dillinger survived? What if the film ended with him escaping? And then Mann could make an alternative history sequel - or even a trilogy - of Dillinger Outlaw King progressing through the next fifty or so years of American history and dying of old age on top of a pile of stolen cash. Now that would be a movie worth seeing.
But Mann doesn't seem capable of anything as creative and exciting as that. He's just a technically-gifted crime-thriller director. He can set up his action scenes, get the period details, and attract top talent but he's not able to really make the audience care about his characters or the story he's telling. (Or rather he can't do it with this film. He's done it in the past with such films as "Collateral.")
In this way perhaps the film that "Public Enemies" most resembles is Steven Zaillian's 2006 drama "All the King's Men." In both cases we've got a period American drama inspired by real events that's all dressed up with nowhere to go - perfect cast and perfect filmmaking craft all put too waste for empty characters. It's cinema that's as soulless as anything Michael Bay might excrete.
The principle problem of "Public Enemies" is that Dillinger, Frechette, and Purvis are ciphers. I didn't know what drove them. Why did Dillinger rob banks? Why were Purvis and Hoover so driven to stop him? Why was Frechette so drawn to Dillinger? The film gives us no explanation whatsoever to these crucial dramatic questions. It doesn't even offer a genuine protagonist. Are we to root for Dillinger or Purvis? As much as I love postmodernism it doesn't work very well in narrative film. It only means I have no character with whom to identify.
But at least "Public Enemies" has plenty of gun fights and cool Depp lines. Yay.
Depp might make a great outlaw but he doesn't always get the best outlaw scripts. Unfortunately "Public Enemies" doesn't join the esteemed company of "Ed Wood," "Cry Baby," "Fear and Loathing," the first "Pirates," and "Sweeney Todd." It's a younger sister to "Blow" and "The Libertine" - not an absolute failure, somewhat interesting to watch at parts, a decent Depp performance, but ultimately a forgettable pass for all but Depp devotees and fans of the genre.