Review: 'Public Enemies'
This retelling of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp, falls hard for the antihero mythology.
Hollywood has made so many 1930s-era gangster movies that the only excuse for a new one is novelty. Why else endure yet again all those rat-a-tat shootouts? Nostalgia has its limits.Skip to next paragraph
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Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, doesn't attempt to break new ground. It tills the old ground, albeit with new-style star power and Mann's signature cinematic flourishes. But Depp is unduly subdued and Mann's cape work is oversold.
Despite the famous bank robber's notoriety, only two "Dillinger" movies, one made in 1945 starring Lawrence Tierney, the other from 1973 with Warren Oates, have prominently featured him – and neither were wonderful. The hope was that Mann, known for squeezing every last drop of India ink out of his crime-world noirs ("Manhunter," "Heat," "Collateral"), would find a fresh way to either remythologize Dillinger or debunk his legend.
He's fallen hard for the mythology, skimping just about everything else that might bring Dillinger to life. You'd be hard-pressed to tell from this film, notwithstanding the occasional prettified hobo, that the country was mired in the Great Depression. Mann and coscreenwriters Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman have limned – i.e., watered down – the Dillinger material from Bryan Burrough's 2004 nonfiction book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34." Their real touchstone is old Hollywood crime films.
Mann's hero-worshipy treatment of Dillinger is undercut by the film's dreamtime existentialist aura. In reality, the working poor cheered Dillinger's bank raids but in "Public Enemies" the Depression is just a prop, and so Dillinger's populist hero status, what little we see of it, makes scant sense. (This is probably why we see so little of it.) Missing, as a result, is the knockabout tumult of a time when gangsters could ascend to the same stardom as the movie actors who played gangsters. Dillinger was, for a while, every bit as big as Jimmy Cagney. Mann pirouettes around the twin realities of the Depression and the star culture it engendered and offers instead a moody blues doominess. It's a vacuum filling a vacuum.