Thank goodness for the optional subtitles on DVDs. I am glad I did not try to watch Public Enemies (trailer above) in a theater.
I don’t know what sort of accent Christian Bale was trying to emit in his role as Bureau of Investigation agent Melvin Purvis, but his mushmouthed Deputy Dawg impression blended with the background noise into a muddled mess.
Not that Purvis or anyone else in the movie really had much important to say. Public Enemies spends most of its effort conveying a time and a place, and very little on story or character.
Johnny Depp, of course, stars as bank robber John Dillinger. Marion Cotillard plays Dillinger’s gal pal Billie Frechette, and Jason Clarke, who went on to star in Fox’s prematurely cancelled TV drama The Chicago Code, has a role as Dillinger cohort “Red” Hamilton.
The movie is adapted from Bryan Burrough‘s 2004 book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, and that might have been an interesting story to tell. Some of it — for instance how the Bureau tracks Dillinger through his purchase of an overcoat — is noted in passing, and J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) makes a quick appearance before the hostile Senate Appropriations Committee, but I would have liked to see more about how scientific methods transformed crime fighting in this era, and more about what Dillinger was thinking.
Instead, Public Enenmies‘ characters are all cutouts from the same graphic novel. What dialogue you can make out is clipped, and their cards are held close to their vests. We get very little insight into what motivates anyone. At one point, it’s clear that the general public regards John Dillinger as a hero, but there’s barely any clue as to why this might be the case.
For all the public hoopla that surrounded every second of Public Enemies‘ location shooting in Chicago and here in Wisconsin, the backdrops are not as enthralling as one might have hoped. There are some very shiny old cars, some fancy interiors and classic costume details that make the movie fun to look at, but they never completely transport us. Ironically, certain moments set in wooded areas do this better.
Snatches of the music of Billie Holliday set the mood three times in the movie, and Dillinger himself listens to “Am I Blue?” on the radio when he’s missing his girl Bille. As noted among the anachronisms at IMDb.com, these songs “were not recorded until the late thirties, long after John Dillinger’s death,” and “When Dillinger died in July 1934 Holiday was a little-known cabaret singer in New York, so it’s unlikely a live show of hers would have been broadcast anywhere, let alone as far from her home base as Chicago.”
Something about a sentimental John Dillinger lying on his bed listening to Billie Holiday just doesn’t ring true. It does, however, make for a companion Public Enemies soundtrack album, which also features Diana Krall‘s take on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a recurring theme in the movie.
The very best moments of Public Enemies are the scenes of gun violence — particularly the famous shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, featuring some thudding Tommy gun (Thompson submachine gun) volleys lasting much longer than the real battle did. Slugs slam into into walls and trees with awesome force, and you can almost smell the smoke and the gun oil.
Unfortunately, Public Enemies could have been much more than a few thrilling action sequences strung together between gorgeous style shots. Because it wasn’t, I have to rate it two and a half out of four stars.