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Vol. LXIII, No. 27
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

AMERICA’S MOST WANTED CRIMINAL: Standing on the running board of a moving automobile and brandishing his tommy gun, Public Enemy #1 John Herbert Dillinger is looking for yet another bank to rob because, to quote Willie Sutton, “That’s where the money is.”

Public Enemies: Johnny Depp Portrays Dillinger in Grisly Gangster Movie

Kam Williams

In 1996, Theresa Russell starred in a picture called Public Enemies, a mob story glorifying Ma Barker’s reign of terror as the matriarch of a crew of bank robbers comprised of her own sons. So, it’s hard to understand why director Michael Mann has used the same name for a film about the thirties criminal John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934).

However, the recycled title is the least of the problems of this movie. Its biggest flaw is its failure to engage the audience emotionally in either Dillinger’s (Johnny Depp) bloody crime spree or his wooing of a gullible hat-check girl (Marion Cotillard). Instead of character development, Mann has opted to present a grisly film that features more tommy gun muzzle flashes per minute than The Untouchables (1987) and Dillinger (1973).

While fairly faithfully following the latter film’s plotline, Public Enemies wastes the talents of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. One would think that, with Bale playing legendary lawman Melvin Purvis, his dogged pursuit of Depp as Dillinger would be a central attraction of the film. Unfortunately, the chase in this movie is about as compelling as any nondescript action sequence you can find on TV.

Additionally, the rest of a stellar cast is under utilized, starting with Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) as Dillinger’s devoted gun moll, Billie Frenchette. Then Billy Crudup fails to do J. Edgar Hoover justice, and Stephen Graham comes off as a cartoonish clown-like Baby Face Nelson.

Was Leelee Sobieski signed on as an extra simply to look pretty strolling briefly down the street on the arm of Dillinger? Similarly, Channing Tatum, makes a blink-and-you-missed-it cameo as Pretty Boy Floyd. The same goes for Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff and other character actors. The list of disappointing performances is long.

Public Enemies is an old-fashioned shoot-’em-up for filmgoers who enjoy that sort of mindless mayhem. However, others might be offended by the way in which Dillinger is portrayed as a folk hero with a code of honor, and who remained faithful to his lover.

Unfortunately, in real life he was a ruthless cop-killer and a womanizer who had abandoned his wife for a series of questionable women. Funny how Hollywood portraits of him have become increasingly empathetic over the years since 1945 when he was originally introduced as a cold-blooded murderer.

Fair (1.5 stars). Rated R for profanity and gangland-style slayings. Running time: 140 minutes. Studio: Universal Pictures.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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