Public Enemies: Depp-utizing the Thirties

public-enemiesMichael Mann's Public Enemies is epic filmmaking with B-movie content. It's as if a wannabe David Lean got down and dirty Americana-style.

Yes, every prodigious moment is so artfully rendered, every frame so thoughtfully blocked, that even the machine gun bang-ups have a choreographed sensibility to them. Yet for all of this thoughtful grandeur, and possibly because of it, the film lacks the hit-you-in-the-bladder, shocking gutsiness of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde.

John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), best known in recent decades for the urban myth his prodigious body part inspired, is the antihero of this crime saga.This bank-robbing legend of the 1930s became a folk hero for the inventiveness of his crimes, the stylishness of his bravado, and the fury with which a young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his newfangled agency (the FBI) pursued him. 

As depicted here, Dillinger is a romantic who falls madly in love with a hatcheck girl (a sensational Marion Cottilard) and with his own legend. He's an affable, violent criminal who lives for the moment, who imagines he's invulnerable to the undertakings of the G-men, and who can't fathom that time is making him obsolete. His former compatriots are asking, "John, why spend a month planning a robbery where you might get mowed down or at least earn a bullet in the bicep when you can make that same amount of moolah safely in a day as a bookie on a phone? As for time in the Big House, just pay off the coppers."

But this guileless and unschooled Dillinger is a proud moral force, a distant ancestor of No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh. And if you are a Johnny Depp fanatic, you'll revel in his screen time as a crook with a heart of gold. But after you do, just imagine the life force a young Jack Nicholson would have added to the role.

In the end, if you can overcome the confusing action scenes where you'll have trouble figuring out who's shooting whom, and the endless pore-probing close-ups, and the fact that many of the subsidiary characters blur into each other, and that Christian Bale gives yet another stick-up-my-ass performance as law enforcer Melvin Purvis, you might just come to the conclusion that Public Enemies is one of the best films of 2009. Let's hope you're wrong. - Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell is currently starring in Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories, which is still in production. In the fall, he'll be teaching "The Arts in New York City" at City College. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, The Advocate, and dozens of other publications.

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