It’s not a good sign when the guy in the row in front of you is dead asleep throughout the entire movie. But the boredom that is Public Enemies is not star Johnny Depp’s fault. He’s as charismatic and as handsome as ever playing 30s era gangster/bank robber John Dillinger.
One problem is the uninspiring supporting cast, which includes the increasingly grating Christian Bale as FBI agent Melvin Purvis and Billy Crudup, who is totally miscast as J. Edgar Hoover and adopts a weird James-Cagney like cadence while everyone else talks normally. All the other characters, lots of guys in fedoras, look so much alike, you have no idea who’s who.
And you kind of don’t care. The script, directed by Michael Mann, fudges history and has little depth. Besides a written statement at the beginning, which explains that John Dillinger started robbing banks during the Great Depression, we really have no idea what motivated him to turn to a life of crime or how he became so powerful and violent.
The plot is thin and lacks suspense. Yeah, so he wants to make a big score and doesn’t want to get busted by the Feds. The guy was a folk hero, considered by many at the time to be a modern-day Robin Hood. That’s barely touched on and would have been a lot more interesting as the main focus.
Instead, we get stuff like a lame shootout in the woods and a car chase in which the old autos look like they’re going about 30 miles an hour. After a summer of Transformers and Terminator, watching the action in Public Enemies is like going on the kiddie rollercoaster after the Cyclone.
There are a couple of great things besides Johnny Depp and his snazzy three-piece suits. Dillinger’s prison breakouts were genius and there’s something really cool about the rat-a-tat-tat of the old-school machine guns. Plus, Marion Cotillard, who plays Dillinger’s dishy dame Billie Frechette, is enchanting.
But if you want to learn more about Dillinger, and the great bank robbers of the 1930s, just Google him or go to Wikipedia. Or better yet, read the excellent book this movie is based on called Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI.