Friday, July 3, 2009

Indiana Vice: Arturo vs. Public Enemies!

It's kind of fun to watch an audience deflate at the sight of dashed expectations – in the case of Public Enemies, the presumption that it was going to be all about Johnny Depp swashbuckling around again.


We do get some of that, of course, as Depp steps into the legend of bank-robber/folk hero John Dillinger. We meet Dillinger as he starts a comeback tour, escaping Indiana State Prison and gets back on the criminal horse. In the midst of all this he commits – or maybe invents? -- the classic crook's mistake: he takes up with a girl (Marion Cotillard). And these scenes, of course, are the ones dominating the adverts, with Depp crooning the girl into being his moll.

Unfortunately for fans of Depp, director and co-writer Michael Mann is more interested in tracing Dillinger's fall than re-telling his story. Much like another Depp character, Jack Sparrow, Dillinger and his loose cannon ways are out-of-place in a country where both the crooks, led in Chicago by a true villain, Frank Nitti (Bill Camp), and the cops are getting more organized.

Leading the charge for Johnny Law, if not the promotional blitz, is young G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), hot-shotted into a position out of his depth by embarrassed FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Purvis is a capable cop – witness his takedown of Pretty Boy Floyd (blink and you'll miss Channing Tatum) – and tech-friendly for his era, but Bale capably shows Purvis feeling just as trapped by his own environment as Dillinger is squeezed out of his. This parallel adds a welcome layer to the usual cat-and-mouse dynamic. Best of all, it's apparently not too far removed from historical truth.

In fact, it's a pleasant surprise that Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman seem to omit more of the Dillinger legends, rather than make up some new ones. (Fans of Baby Face Nelson, though, have reason to complain). But, for example: Manhattan Melodrama and the Biograph Theater? The unsavory deal Purvis struck? The theft of Sheriff Holley's car? All part of Dillinger “canon.”

It might be the omissions, however, that stop Enemies from being a meatier work, rather than a capable summer matinee. You're left wanting to know more about why Dillinger did what he did, or wanting to see more of his “man of the people” persona at work and his own cunning (did you know, for instance, that the "Jackrabbit" was one of the first crooks to use bulletproof vests?) We get glimpses here and there of the man behind the myth, but the romantic and chase storylines dominate the film. What we get isn't executed badly – but hopefully we'll get a longer cut where Depp and Mann can really dig into the man behind the myth.

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