John Dillinger: legendary Depression-era outlaw, audacious bank robber, cavalier jailbreaker, hero of the common people, and — in Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ — speed dating pioneer.
“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, and you,” he tells a hard-to-get Billie Frechette when she first catches his eye. “What else do you need to know?”
Not much, reckons Mann.
Over 140 minutes the writer-director reveals very little of the criminal who, in the space of 13 rapid-fire months, won over the American public by sticking it to the man. Perhaps that’s the point — nobody really knew the true Dillinger — but the less than personal approach makes it difficult to connect with the rat-tat-tat succession of shootouts, breakouts and hideouts.
No help either is the filmmaker’s insistence on using digital cameras. Their grainy, low-light look was perfect for his claustrophobic ‘Collateral’ and, to a lesser degree, the mean streets of ‘Miami Vice’. But here, the modern look jars with the early- 1930s setting and only draws attention to his very stylised techniques. Perhaps the approach is supposed to highlight Dillinger’s own flash and bravado, although Johnny Depp needs absolutely no help conveying that.
All charm and cheekiness — focused by a steely determination — he does his best with a character drawn in the same style as those in a vintage ‘Dick Tracy’ comic book. Playing the celebrity crook — schmoozing the press, posing for pictures with his captors, taunting his pursuers, refusing to swear in front of female hostages, winning over Frechette who becomes his lover-on-the-lam — the actor’s a treat, but put a machine gun or fast car in his hands and, jaw clenched, he becomes little more than a disposable action hero.
So too Christian Bale, as the gentleman bandit’s arch nemesis, isn’t given much chance to show off his acting talent. As government agent Melvin Purvis he spends most of his time running through fields or forests — the bouncing camera never too far behind — or barking orders at the same minions who’ve let Dillinger slip through their fingers once again.
Mann, clearly aiming to repeat the De Niro-Pacino dynamic of his ‘Heat’, misses the target, and almost mows down the thrill of his urgent cat and mouse game. Almost. For all its problems — and there are many — ‘Public Enemies’ certainly isn’t the stuffy period piece it could have become. With that in-your-face documentary-style ensuring frenetic, gritty recreations of Dillinger’s most daring exploits, nothing here’s slow. Not even the dating.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.