Johnny Depp stars as John Dillinger in Universal Pictures’ Public Enemies.

Ah, summer, when the studios release their non-threatening excuses to sit in air conditioning and buy the tie-in toys. It's the time of year when everything is spoon-fed to the audience and nothing is unexpected, startling or challenging.

Thank goodness for Public Enemies.

In the 1930s, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean) goes on one of the biggest crime sprees in American history and becomes a legend. He uses his mythical status to gain public favor, stay anonymous, and even seduce a lonely coat check girl (Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose). As his heists become more and more devastating, the FBI dispatches Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight) in an attempt to stop the violence.

 

Things I liked about Public Enemies:

1. Writer/producer/director Michael Mann is continually proving himself to be one of the most stylistically bold and fascinating filmmakers in Hollywood. He flies in the face of convention by shooting a period piece in digital video, creating some truly gorgeous deep-focus night shots and lending an unexpected air of the here and now. This choice also serves well in the thunderous and gripping action sequences, which Mann directs like a maestro conducting a symphony, placing the audience literally inches away from the roaring Tommy Guns.

2. The film's advertising is based solely on Johnny Depp, and he doesn't disappoint. Depp is suave, cunning and brilliant as Dillinger, and it's his best and most challenging performance since Donnie Brasco. But he isn't alone: Cotillard is enchanting as the tragic Billie Frechette; Bale is a master at playing grim, steely resolve; and Billy Crudup (Watchmen) is sublimely slimy as J. Edgar Hoover. They're surrounded by a vast and pitch-perfect ensemble cast, the best of whom is Stephen Graham (Gangs of New York), who gives a dazzling, scene stealing performance as the psychopathic Baby Face Nelson.

3. Public Enemies is the rare summer movie that doesn't tell you what to think. It has way too much respect for the audience. There is no predefined "good" and "bad;" it's all shades of gray. There's no pop psychology, no explanations or justifications for why the characters behave the way they do. The film wisely just lets them exist, and it's up to the audience to decide why.

 

Things I disliked about Public Enemies:

1. It's nearly impossible to watch a film about a well-known public figure like John Dillinger without bringing in some preconceived notions like a mental checklist. Having that in your head is distracting, to say the least.

2. Christian Bale unwisely attempts a Southern accent. He's a great actor, but we're so used to his "normal" voice that it's almost absurd.

3. I'm hoping this was just a glitch at the midnight screening, but there were abrupt and random shifts in volume, usually in the middle of a scene of dialogue.

 

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