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Published: Wednesday, 7/1/2009

'Public Enemies' digs deep into Dillinger's story, but lacks excitement

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The criminal life and violent death of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger makes for a fascinating story.

His crime spree in the 1930s through the Midwest - including a bank robbery in Bluffton, Ohio, and his subsequent capture in Lima, where he served jail time before a dramatic escape that left the town's sheriff dead -riveted the nation. It also made the brazen bank robber a folk hero, even as he made a mockery of law enforcement, including the fledging FBI.

Cast Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as his nemesis, FBI agent Melvin Purvis, and the film should be a can't-miss.

So it's especially bewildering that Public Enemies, the latest Hollywood effort to chronicle Dillinger's exploits, proves to be a mostly languid affair.

Based on Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough, the movie, which opens today, has considerably more depth than the typical gangster film. It examines the role Dillinger and others like Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) had in creating their own demise. Their cases illustrated the FBI's need for a new methodology of crime fighting, one which relied less on blazing guns and good fortune and more on regimented training, scientific know-how and, when necessary, bullying tactics.

In keeping with its more evenhanded approach to the outlaws, Public Enemies doesn't glorify Dillinger so much as it humanizes him, including his love affair with Billie Frechette (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard in an impressive role that's more than the one-dimensional romantic interest).

Depp, in a mannered performance that's less showy than many of his recent roles but just as effective, embraces Dillinger as an outlaw living the American dream of riches and fame, who, through his daring heists, became a modern-day Robin Hood. Dillinger embraced his celebrity, knowing that his populist status gave him an edge over law enforcement, which was often portrayed by media as buffoonish and corrupt.

Those negative images prompted the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, to maintain a constant stream of public relations photo-ops and press conferences. Perhaps because of public empathy for Dillinger, Hoover despised the crook even more. But the FBI director also needed him, and others like him, to prove the importance of the agency.

Billy Crudup as Hoover digs deep into the role and unearths a quick-tempered, calculating, power-hungry man whose lofty ambitions supersede his moral code. More importantly, Crudup makes you forget the jokes about Hoover's fondness for women's clothing.

As Purvis, the man assigned by Hoover to bring Dillinger to justice, Bale brings more star power to the role than is required, considering the character is only slightly more shaded and jaded than Kevin Costner's stoic, by-the-books Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. There isn't much for Bale to do other than react to Dillinger's deeds, though the intense actor does reaction well. (It's also nice to hear his real voice again, and not the gravelly tone used in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation.)

Acting is certainly not the downfall of Public Enemies. The top-notch cast is undone by too many moments of onscreen inertia.

The 140-minute film is too long for its own good, and by the time the movie picks up the dramatic pace as Dillinger marches to his demise at the Biograph Theater in Chicago it's too late.

Public Enemies isn't helped, either, by director Michael Mann's propensity to frame almost every shot in close-up. Mann is known for stylish features such as the original Manhunter, Collateral, and Miami Vice, and his intention with the close-ups is to drop audiences into the action (or inaction, as is more often the case).

But after more than two hours of counting skin pores, the technique feels like a comical violation of the actors' personal space.

Contact Kirk Baird at:

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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