During the early part of the 1930s, John Dillinger was one of the most notorious criminals in America, carrying out a string of bank robberies, and being involved in the deaths of several police officers. In spite of his crimes (or perhaps because of them), his apparent insistence on only taking ‘the bank’s money’, rather than stealing directly from the customers, saw him idolised by many as a kind of Robin Hood figure.
Public Enemies concerns itself with the story of this man, beginning with a prison break at the peak of his career. From the moment that Johnny Depp appears on the screen, though, you’re aware this is likely to be a romanticised, and thus inaccurate, version of history. While there’s nothing wrong with his performance, it just seems that he looks wrong for the part, being far better looking and neat than the real Dillinger ever was. It’s also arguable that putting Depp in this role was always going to elicit sympathy from the audience, inevitably pitching him as the archetypal anti-hero.
Indeed, what Public Enemies offers is a story of a loveable rogue, with a heart of gold, and woman that he loves (Marion Cotillard supplying plenty of smiles, tears and paper-thin melodrama). It’s beautifully shot, the score is strong, and the performances and direction mean you should find yourself suitably entertained for the two hours it takes to watch this movie.
However, for those of us used to revisionist visions of history, it also feels like something of a missed opportunity. It might well have been more intriguing to explore how much of a bastard Dillinger really was, what motivated him and how he became involved in crime in the first place. Sadly, neither his early life nor his more unsavoury traits are ever examined, so the legend is perpetuated rather than deconstructed.
Public Enemies also fails to create a decent adversary for Dillinger, instead providing us with a two-dimensional rent-a-Fed by the name of Melvin Purvis. Christian Bale does an admirable job of making this character interesting, but he’s never really more than a foil for Depp’s pouting gangster. A far more interesting performance comes from Billy Crudup as J Edgar Hoover, who, despite sounding scarily like David Lo Pan from Big Trouble In Little China, is entirely convincing as the ruthless pen-pusher behind the Dillenger manhunt.
Although Public Enemies is flawed, it’s not as historically inaccurate as you might expect for a Hollywood movie, and while it doesn’t really tell you about its subject, it does give you a flavour of him.
It doesn’t really lose anything from being on an iPod screen either, being led more by its dialogue and plot than its looks. As ever, though, you have to question the value of paying £10.99 for the download. A rental option doesn’t appear to be available, which is a shame, because Public Enemies is a movie that doesn’t really reward repeat viewing. However, if the price doesn’t put you off, then it might still be worth the download.
Public Enemies is available from the iTunes store.