Tuesday, July 28, 2009
During the first of several bank robberies in Michael Mann's Depression-era gangster movie "Public Enemies," a rakish John Dillinger ( Johnny Depp) spots a shabbily dressed customer offering his meager deposit.
"We're not here for your money," says Dillinger, all kindness and charm. "We're here for the bank's money."
They're the same thing, of course, as we in the bailout age have discovered. But 1933 seems a simpler time, when a bank robber could be a folk hero; the Mafia had yet to join the global economy; and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was pioneering the phone tap using vinyl 78s. This richly textured era - seemingly ancient but still recognizable and relevant - makes "Public Enemies" feel less like a flick and more like a fable.
If Dillinger is a frisky fox, FBI agent Melvin Purvis ( Christian Bale) is the humorless hound. Driven by the merciless Hoover ( Billy Crudup, subtly psychotic and possibly closeted), the FBI suffers as many casualties as it inflicts. Meantime, Dillinger's sad-eyed girlfriend, Billie Frechette ( Marion Cotillard), seems to intuit how this bloodshed will end.
"Public Enemies" can be a somber shoot-'em-up; the secondary characters blur together, a stream of clenched jaws and bullet wounds. Stephen Graham, briefly playing the volatile Baby Face Nelson, alone triggers the nerve-jangling mayhem that usually defines the gangster genre.
Despite its wide-brimmed hats and high-crowned sedans, "Public Enemies" has its mind on the 2000s. The plural title encompasses the good guys, who resort to monstrous tactics - including torture - in their pursuit of monsters. Something about Dillinger's bloody, summary death has always nagged at the public; Mann is clearly urging today's audiences to draw its own conclusions.