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Public Enemies (15)

Is Johnny Depp a fop or a flop? Lew Baxter decides

Published on July 6th 2009.

Public Enemies (15)

IF you are inclined to the modern liberal stance, the one which detests the glorification of ruthless hoodlums, then prepare to wince at this elegantly composed herogram to the US Depression era bank robber, John Dillinger.

Mann should really have had a quiet word with Depp and asked him to pitch in a bit more snarling and grunting, rather than allowing him to generally sashay about cutting fine dashes and wooing his moll

Catcalls are for the apparent good guys, led by Christian Bale, alias FBI agent Melvin Purvis, whose specially chosen squad of cops is as chillingly murderous in its own way as the buckaroos they are pursuing.

Perhaps it's that Johnny Depp, as gimlet-eyed killer Dillinger, cuts a more romantic, even glamorous, kind of figure than Bale who, once again, is verging on the one dimensional; barely displaying any real emotion or facial movement.

Depp seems to have figured that Dillinger needs to come across as a carefree, folksy kind of bandit who indifferently outwits his nemesis until, quite cheesed off at his sheer, brazen nerve, Purvis turns on the heat, good style.

In reality, Dillinger is a thug with a genial smile and a winning way with words - there are several glorious slabs of dialogue - whose only loyalty is to his pals (and that’s not fully a given) and his squeeze, former cloakroom attendant Billie.

He lives life to the full and on the hog at swish restaurants while, despite his freebooting antics, wallowing in the benediction of the masses who are - just like now, girls and boys - enraged by the greed of bankers.

Where director Michael Mann clearly get his own rocks off is in the action sequences: unleashing gunslinging fire fights on a grand scale as the lads on either side empty their ‘tommy’ guns and pistols at will, at random, and very loudly – at anyone in their way.

It is a beautifully - excuse me – shot piece of work, in high definition digital, well crafted and paced, although Mann should really have had a quiet word with Depp and asked him to pitch in a bit more snarling and grunting, rather than allowing him to generally sashay about cutting fine dashes and wooing his moll.

And here we are talking a truly sparkling performance from the French actress Marion Cotillard who comes within a sultry silk stocking of stealing the show from under the twitchy noses of Bale and Depp.

Mind you Depp does make a fair fist of leaping onto bank counters and ordering terrified folk to lie down and shut up, blah, blah, while he and his henchmen make off with the loot.

He also has this irritating trait of grabbing a couple of them as hostages to cover the gang’s getaway, but usually lets them go after a couple of criminal flavoured bon mots are delivered their way.

The movie starts with what appears to be Dillinger in cuffs on his way to the State Penitentiary. In fact, it’s a prison break-out, as he needs the boys out and about to continue their crime sprees.

It’s deftly orchestrated until one of the chums goes haywire and shoots a guard – and thus do the thrills and spills commence.

Purvis – with the support of new FBI director J Edgar Hoover – brings in a posse of tough nut G-men and it's time to lay waste to Dillinger’s motley bunch, eventually with the collusion of The Mob who are nervous his escapades will attract attention to their own little scams.

It’s all based on a factual book about gangsters by Brian Burroughs and adapted by Mann for the screen, like he did with the first Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter, and then James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, in 1992, which was a blockbuster of an effort.

In truth, Mann was better served by Tom Cruise as the brutal, non-smiling, cold hit man in Collateral than he is by Depp here ( and at that admission this critic is choking on chunks of humble pie, being of the personal conviction that most of the ‘classy’ movies starring Cruise, particularly, Last Samurai and War of the Worlds, could have been listed amongst the cinema greats of all time if he hadn’t been in them).

No matter a few foibles, Public Enemies is a great yarn - and the ‘lightness of being’ of Depp not withstanding - it will surely be acknowledged in time as one of the more intellectual of the gangster chase genre: up there with Heat and The Untouchables – honest.

8/10 – Enthralling and intoxicating. Now on general release

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