Public Enemies

publicenemiesOr: I Am A Fugitive From The History Channel.

John Dillinger looked like a wolf; Johnny Depp is a ballroom sheik. Billie Frechette was Dillinger’s moll, small, plain, and scrappy; Marion Cotillard is a blank beauty searching for a character. The couple has no chemistry, no liveliness. Directed to look hard at each other, they can’t even get naked for sex — a scene that rolls around in bed with them. And the stars in Public Enemies have bad fake accents.

Director Michael Mann wants “real,” but the story is pulp even if it did happen. What should have been a crackling B movie is a de-saturated docudrama (shot on digital video) that is at pains to get the wrong details right, using actual locations and haircuts, letting the gunfights play in something close to real time. Not all of the wrong details are right, either: No-one sweats in Chicago in the summer (where are the electric fans?), Baby Face Nelson dies too soon, and the lady in red wears orange. I like the modern renditions of period folk songs, and the film could have used back projection and ketchup blood for all I care — the material is there. The material is there, but Mann can’t dance. He does not want to dramatize the parts of the movie that would entertain and inform. He’s too busy making a serious and important film.

De-mythology qualifies as myth if you honor the fact that, for a story like this, myth is inherent and relevant. A mythic story, however, needs certain engineering: archetypes and arcs to make a story worth telling. We see Dillinger live a fast and violent life, but there’s scant here to distinguish him; this American bandit wishes to escape, but that alone can’t hold our interest.

Great movie gangsters are peculiar. Aesthetically, their rise and fall excites us; they’re relatable. For all of this to work, structure and shading is key. In Public Enemies, Mann decorates to authenticate and practically every scene is drawn out. He short-changes Depp on personality. The movie hurts for character and pacing, and we feel cheated.

The final straw: Although legends abound, Dillinger’s life and death is a matter of public record — yet the screenplay is based on a book. All this, and it can’t even tell us what made him tick?

Watch Heat (1995) instead.

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