newscarly at the movies public enemies bite the dust

Carly at the Movies | Public enemies bite the dust

Ah, Johnny, we hardly knew ye!
In “Public Enemies,” currently playing everywhere in the universe, Johnny Depp does an adequate job as old timey bank robber John Dillinger, but any nuances the script had were drowned out by the incessant chatter of Tommy guns.

Director Michael Mann has practically fashioned his whole distinguished career behind bars, specializing in movies (“Miami Vice,” “Heat,” ad nauseum) and rat-a-tat TV shows (“Starsky and Hutch,” “The Jericho Mile,” etc). And in this one, with romantic badguys like Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson and “Pretty Boy” Floyd, he can’t seem to resist having everyone, including Christian Bale as lawman Melvin Purvis, blow everything in sight to smithereens.

The camera shivers and shakes as Thompson sub-machine guns rattle the rafters, and everything is set in a neo-1930’s world of dim hallways and sleazy Chicago hotels. Yes, it captures the mood all right, but not everyone in the world has the patience to sit through it for nearly two and a half hours.

Christian Bale, representing the forces of Good in this one, has been in movies for over 20 years now, and I don’t think he’s yet cracked a smile. So you wouldn’t expect anything but his usual frozen-faced, mumbling, taciturn delivery. In the one big scene where Depp and Bale face each other from opposite sides of the bars, one might reasonably anticipate a dramatic confrontation to ensue. It’s more like Marlon Brando running into Montgomery Clift after a three-day drunk.

This is an “A” picture, and the supporting cast is top notch. Channing Tatum as “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Billy Crudup as prissy J. Edgar Hoover, Stephen Graham as “Baby Face” Nelson, and Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”) as Dillinger’s main squeeze, all add interest to the proceedings but inevitably the film is going to be compared to the 1973 Dillinger biopic. Then we’re in deep doody.

Just a couple of weeks ago, “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” remake came out, and the movie critics whined that it just wasn’t as good as the 1974 original. Well, this brand new Dillinger movie just doesn’t hold a candle to the 1973 version either, written and directed by the great John Milius.

Warren Oates was absolutely brilliant as Dillinger, and who could portray G-Man Melvin Purvis better than Ben Johnson? The film is crisp, clear, well-cast, well-written, and even more fun to watch nowadays with Richard Dreyfus, Harry Dean Stanton, and Cloris Leachman all in swaggering support.

“Public Enemies” follows the career of John Dillinger from one of his numerous break-outs through the famous scene outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater where he is blasted to shreds by an army of G-Men. The details are meticulously placed by director Mann (though historians are already nit-picking through the dead bodies), but at the end you are still left wondering – what was this all about? Maybe every movie doesn’t need a Big Message, but it ought to say something. This one says: Boy, is it ever fun to shoot off semi-automatic weapons!

There’s nothing wrong with making a Depression era bank robber movie, even though you know from the get-go that you’ll never top “Bonnie and Clyde.” But I think they missed the really significant drama, the important change, in “Public Enemies.” The real struggle was between three men: Dillinger, Purvis, and Hoover – one of them representing lawlessness and the other two clashing over how to change our system of justice. The character of Purvis, stuck between the other two, was short-changed in this script. Sure, it was fun watching Johnny and his Tommy gun in action, but in the end, “Public Enemies” bites the dust.

Note to Movie Nut Cases: If you happen to get Turner Classic Movies at your home, and are curious about seeing the Worst Movie Ever Made, check the old movie channel out on July 25th. The seldom-seen “Terror of Tiny Town” is playing on that date, and it’s my humble nomination for the absolute bottom of the barrel, movie-wise. It’s a singing cowboy western starring a cast of midgets on Shetland ponies. So bad it makes “Plan 9 from Outer Space” look like “Citizen Kane.”


– Column by Carl Larsen



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