From the Editor

Movie Review Archive

Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!

Wes Singleton

North Texas Film Critics Association

Monday, June 29, 2009

Public Enemies - B

Rated R for gangster violence and some language, 140 minutes

Depp the best part of the compelling, low-key "Public Enemies"

Those legions of Johnny Depp fans will be pleased to know that he and his earnest new film about John Dillinger, "Public Enemies" deliver some compelling, entertaining moments. What's really surprising is that it's remarkably conventional and subdued given the source and the magnetic leads, Depp and co-star Christian Bale and director Michael Mann, of "Miami Vice" and "Ali." "Public Enemies" brings with it some of Mann's flaws: heavily styled, colorful visuals and an overlong, meandering pace, but the story is well-told and superbly acted.

"Public Enemies" is based on the Bryan Burroughs book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-34" and essentially tells two stories: Dillinger's crime wave and then the pursuit of Dillinger, led by FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Bale). As the FBI organizes itself to seriously fight crime, it transforms itself from a largely powerless organization led by a publicity-seeking tyrant J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). They find themselves defeated at every turn by Dillinger and his men, who eventually team up with another gangster, Baby Face Nelson (played by Stephen Graham here) to become wealthy robbing banks. But Purvis and his men gather strength when they find some real Southern sharp shooters (from Texas, no less) to help bring Dillinger and his gang down.

"Public Enemies" is an entertaining and well-acted though a restrained, earnest look at how the FBI evolved into a powerful agency and how they initially dealt with organized crime. Those expecting an over-the-top bloody Tarantino-esque "Reservoir Dogs" can look elsewhere, not that it isn't enjoyable: Mann works wonders with detailed, colorful visuals, particularly costumes and sets, though his meandering, all-too conventional script needs more energy.

Of course, Depp makes the most watchable Dillinger seen on film, infusing a unique likability and humaness with a crime figure not seen since "Bonnie & Clyde." His romance with Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (another affecting performance) as one of Dillinger's real girlfriends gives the film some romantic buoyancy away from all the shoot-and-steal scenes. Best moment: Dillinger strolls into the Chicago Police Department unnoticed and catches the cops assigned to him listening to a baseball game.

Given Depp's charm and ability to carry a movie, Dillinger's storyline is by far the more involving plotline in "Public Enemies." When it veers off to the FBI, things unfortunately turn to the banal side, unfortunate primarily for Christian Bale. Bale, much like Depp, can be the most alluring of actors and he contributes a benign, low-key performance (and with less screen time) as real-life agent Purvis, but it would've helped to bring the two actors on screen more. They share only a single scene together in the 140-minute film, so those expecting a Dark Knight-Jack Sparrow showdown will be sorely disappointed.

Mann makes some cinematic alterations to "Public Enemies" fact-based story as well, including the familiar climax in which Dillinger is brought down, an anti-climactic moment that could've used more force and dramatic resonance, which could really be said of the movie itself. (It also doesn't make the FBI look good, who made some missteps along the way but were ultimately successful.)

Yet "Public Enemies" is made palpable by its centerpiece figure played by Depp, who gives another fantastic, malleable performance as the gangster who also became public enemy number one, along with the first-rate production. The superbly accurate costumes, sets, and automobiles are all Oscar-worthy and evoke the feel of the early 1930's. Less successful is Mann's flawed, overlong script, filled with excessive, non-essential characters: blink and you'll miss Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, not to mention familiar character actors Giovanni Ribisi, Lili Taylor and Shawn Hatosy in barely-there parts (but Diana Krall fans, watch for her in a cameo as - what else - a torch singer).

"Public Enemies," in spite of its flaws (it's also about 20 minutes too long), has more to like about it than not. It's an entertaining but conventional, low-key look at how the FBI brought John Dillinger to justice, and of course it also stars the always fascinating Johnny Depp in another compelling performance. "Public Enemies" is an unusual, serious choice for a summer movie among loud robots and special-effects, but adults can now appreciate a movie geared for them.