A LETTER to the British comic Viz recalled a warning issued by Thin Lizzy in 1976 – ‘Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town’. “Well,” the reader added laconically, “I’m guessing it’s going to be at the prison.”
And indeed, that’s where the action begins in ‘Public Enemies’, the new film from Michael Mann about the life of legendary gangster John Dillinger. Johnny Depp plays the lead role, and his performance dominates the picture.
The man charged with pursuing this Depression-era outlaw in 1930s America is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a member of what was then the Bureau of Investigation (it had yet to get the ‘F’ in ‘FBI’). He in turn is being harried by the bureau’s director, J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who is tired of Dillinger making a mockery of law-enforcement officials.
Like most Irish people of my generation, I knew little about John Dillinger before viewing this movie, which is based on a 2004 book of the same name by Bryan Burrough. It has certainly got me interested enough to seek out the source material.
As one would expect of a Michael Mann creation, ‘Public Enemies’ is full of testosterone, shoot-outs, car chases and stand-offs. Though he is being led back to jail as the film begins, Dillinger spends most of the time playing hide-and-seek with Purvis and Co. At one point, he even walks into the room occupied by the specialist unit pursuing him and asks for an update on the baseball match playing on the radio.
Dillinger is popular with members of the public, refuses to abandon his fellow gang members, and clearly loves his girlfriend, Billie Frechette (memorably played by Marion Cotillard from ‘La Vie En Rose’). He even offers wisecracks for the press upon being arrested.
But it’s not all sweetness and light – he takes hostages during his robberies, has a propensity for an extreme violence, and shoots anyone who gets in his way. And there are shades of the IRA’s chilling ‘We only have to be lucky once’ warning after the Brighton bombing about his vow: “I hit any bank any time; they’ve got to be in every bank all the time.”
The script, co-written by Irishman Ronan Bennett, is one of the real strengths of ‘Public Enemies’. “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey … and you. What else you need to know?” Dillinger asks Billie shortly after meeting her.
The look of the 1930s is well captured, and the period soundtrack complements the suits, hats and jail sets nicely. There’s also a memorable stand-off at a rural house, as Tommy guns light up the night sky and we hear the sound of glass breaking. Like ‘Heat’, Mann’s 1995 three-hour marathon starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, ‘Public Enemies’ is long, at 140 minutes. But there’s more than enough going on to keep most people interested.
There’s an amusing sequence in a movie theatre where Dillinger’s face flashes up on a newsreel and cinema-goers are warned that he and his gang ‘may be sitting amongst you’. The lights are briefly switched as people dutifully look to their left and right.
Is it a masterpiece? No. The hand-held camerawork grates at times. Dillinger remains an elusive character. Why he’s doing what he’s doing is never dealt with in any detail. And we don’t learn much about Purvis, whose life after Dillinger (summarised in a sentence before the closing credits) raises more questions than answers.
Still, these are minor enough quibbles. Is it worth seeing? Undoubtedly.
Rating 4.5 out of 5