Monday, February 15, 2010

Public Enemies

I don't normally review movies I've watched on DVD, but once in a while a movie does something good enough or bad enough to deserve a comment. Public Enemies falls into the latter category.

I'm not sure how you take a compelling story about a memorable public figure and turn it into a bland, forgettable movie, but the makers of Public Enemies found a way.

Dillinger could be both brutal and restrained, cold and compassionate, fiercely loyal and self-serving. He would plan robberies with exacting detail, sometimes using elaborate ruses to accomplish his goal. And yet he was exceedingly reckless in his personal life, unable to lay low and remain anonymous, even when his life depended on it. Above all, he was a charming public figure who cultivated his reputation more carefully than his cash.

And yet this movie barely touches on his complexities, and in spite of the usual performance by Johnny Depp, he comes off shallow and bland. Instead of empathy, pity, admiration, or disgust - all of which could be valid responses to Dillinger's character - I only felt apathy.

Read these sentences I'm lifting from Wikipedia:
Among Dillinger's more celebrated exploits involved his pretending to be a sales representative for a company that sold bank alarm systems. He reportedly entered a number of Indiana and Ohio banks and used this ruse to assess security systems and bank vaults of prospective targets. Another time, the gang pretended to be part of a film company that was scouting locations for a "bank robbery" scene. Bystanders stood and smiled as a real robbery ensued and Dillinger and friends escaped with the loot.

Don't those scenes sound like they were made for a movie? Neither one made the cut, however, instead replaced by several straight-up gun-toting bank robberies that lacked drama. Dillinger on several occasions returned money to bank customers who were making deposits or who handed him their wallets out of fear, yet this rates a single passing mention in the movie. Dillinger broke into several police stations to steal bullet-proof vests and BARs, but this wasn't mentioned either. The public-service announcements during movies about Dillinger in his gang were often treated with cheers for Dillinger and boos for the agents chasing him, but not in Public Enemies, where the moviegoers somberly and dutifully look to their left and right to see if the at-large criminal is sitting next to them.

The worst bending of the truth was the outright fabrication of Dillinger's last words - he either said nothing or "You've got me" depending on the report, but he most certainly didn't have a romantic message for his jailed girlfriend. In addition to the Woman in Red, he was accompanied to the movies by the prostitute he'd been dating.

It reminds me of the movie 300, which couldn't let a timeless story stand on its own, but felt the need to dress it up with fighting rhinoceroses, ogres, and speeches about freedom. Public Enemies adds pointless dramatization to an already great story while neutering it at the same time.


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