Public Enemies

posted June 29, 2009 08:06:00 AM CDT | 8 comments

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Johnny Depp has already starred in two higher tier true-crime dramas (Blow, Donnie Brasco) but he’s never quite had the chance to play the charismatic, gun-toting career criminal in a suit and tie that we associate with the genre. Public Enemies solves that by putting Depp in the role of John Dillinger over the last few years of his life. The film takes its fair share of liberties with history, but it stays enough to the real events to call it “true” by Hollywood’s standards and is a generally enjoyable take on the legendary bank-robber.

The things that you expect to work basically do. Depp is his usual charming self, and while the character doesn’t require him to dig too deep into his acting abilities, he’s successful at making Dillinger a likable figure. Much like Depp, Christian Bale’s job isn’t hard as steely FBI agent Melvin Purvis but he too handles it well. The supporting cast fills out the rest nicely, even though several recognizable faces are crammed in and often get lost in the shuffle as they breeze in and out of the story.

While there’s nothing glaring wrong with Public Enemies, it doesn’t ever manage to become a classic. It’s basically the same story that you’ve seen in every gangster flick you’ve ever seen—a cool, charismatic criminal outsmarts the persistent law enforcement but finds himself distracted by the exotic woman he meets by chance during a night on the town. From Goodfellas to Blow and American Gangster [click to read], you’ve seen this series of events a hundred times and there aren’t any deviations to speak of.

Like virtually every movie that’s come out over the last few years, Public Enemies is a bit long and there are a good 15 to 20 minutes of it that probably could’ve been left out. Since many of the secondary characters are underdeveloped anyway, what time we do spend with them often feels like filler. It doesn’t take long to drive the point that Dillinger is more clever that the inept FBI agents, but plan on seeing more examples of it than you need, probably because they were too much fun to write and shoot to leave on the floor.

No matter how many times Hollywood pumps out this same gangster-flick tale, people keep seeing them. If you’ve seen one, you’ve more or less seen them all, but they somehow never stop being fun. Success through hard work may be the American Dream, but being a wise-cracking thief in pinstripes is the American fantasy. As a p iece of cinematic fantasy rather than a historical account, Public Enemies will deliver the fix if you don’t feel like watching Casino again.

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