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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Public Enemies

Johnny Depp stars as bank robber John Dillinger

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Outlaws are beloved by law-abiding citizens in most every land, even by people who would be scared stiff to meet one. To define terms: An outlaw is no mere criminal. Serial killers, spouse beaters and investment brokers don't make the grade. An outlaw shimmers with reckless romanticism, and a spark of goodness must illuminate his legend. The archetypal outlaw among English speakers, Robin Hood, robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. John Dillinger spent the money he stole on himself, but according to legend he never took a dime from the poor and, to borrow a line from an old American outlaw ballad, "he was never known to hurt an honest man."

Despite a feverish government-sponsored campaign to demonize him during his 1930s crime spree, Dillinger entered mythology as a bank-robbing outlaw who stole from hated financial institutions during the Great Depression. In the latest film iteration, Public Enemies, the outlaw (played by Johnny Depp) assiduously cultivates folk hero status in jailhouse interviews with the press. When encouraged to commit a bigger crime than robbery, Dillinger replies, "The public don't like kidnappin'." He was willing to give the public what it wanted, so long as it profited him.

In the movie as in life, an opposite number, his flip side, Special Agent Melvin Purvis, hounded Dillinger. In Public Enemies, both men speak in hardscrabble rural accents and are domineering and brutal, though with a moral break precluding the worst excesses. Dillinger, played by Depp with cool determination and the shadow of a smile, is an existential character living in the desire of the moment. Only toward the end, after Purvis has killed all of his associates, will Dillinger's thoughts turn toward the future. Purvis, depicted in grim Batman mode by Christian Bale, is tightly wound and on a mission of public service. His boss, sinister FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played with egomaniacal menace by Billy Crudup), worked the media as astutely as Dillinger. He used Purvis' "war on crime" as an excuse to increase his budget and authority. It was Hoover who famously declared Dillinger "Public Enemy No. 1."

Director Michael Mann (Heat, Ali) is as adept as ever with the snappy visual style and storytelling shorthand of a good Hollywood crime movie. With superb choreography and composition, he depicts a manacled file of stripe-clad prisoners marching in a rhythmic shuffle across the prison yard, a late-night firefight in the woods outside a Manitowoc resort and several scenes of fast cars in chase with men hanging on running boards, their Tommy guns blazing. Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) gives a good performance as Billie Frechette, the half-Menominee-Indian girl from Wisconsin who became Dillinger's mistress.

Much of the history presented in Public Enemies will always be disputed, but Mann's rendition of the story adds another chapter to the folklore of Depression-era outlaws