Johnny Depp doesn't really look much like John Dillinger, the notorious 1930s bank robber. Dillinger was weasely, with a permanent half-scowl/half-smirk that suggested he was way better than anyone else in the room. Plus, he didn't have Depp's heavenly high cheekbones. Still, in Public Enemies, Depp plays Dillinger as such a charming and chivalrous guy that it may forever alter future generations' perception of Chicago's gangland don.
But Public Enemies isn't meant to be a historically faultless portrait of that blood-riddled period. Director and co-writer Michael Mann fudged some facts in The Insider and skirted reality altogether in Miami Vice. This is entertainment. And for 140 minutes, Depp, Mann and the best-dressed gangsters you've ever seen do a bang-up job entertaining us.
The movie opens with Dillinger arriving at Indiana State Prison — not as a prisoner, but as a civilian leading a breakout of some of his incarcerated cronies. Not long after, the crew robs a Wisconsin bank, where Dillinger tells a poor customer to put away his cash. "I want the bank's money," he says. And so begins this modern-day look at a working-class hero, not unlike Robin Hood, who stole only from the corrupted rich — in this case, the bankers who thrived during the Depression (sound familiar?).
Around the same time, FBI agent Melvin Purvis (a sturdy Christian Bale, redeeming himself after the hammy Terminator Salvation) blows a hole in Pretty Boy Floyd during a shootout in an Ohio field. Soon, "shockingly unqualified" FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) sets up a squad of G-Men to round up the nation's gun-toting gangsters (including Frank Nitti and Baby Face Nelson, who show up in Public Enemies) and taps Purvis to lead the manhunt.
Dillinger is promptly declared "Public Enemy No. 1," despite his hero status with much of the public. At one point, he rejects a kidnapping plan because "the public don't like kidnappers." He doesn't kill anybody in the movie either, even though he shoots his gun a lot. Mann keeps things moving with these shootouts, bank robberies and jailbreaks. But a soggy relationship between Dillinger and a hat-check girl (Marion Cotillard) slows down the film, and it's kinda hard keeping all of the suit-wearing gangsters and G-men straight.
There's a later scene where Dillinger's old-school bank robberies get in the way of another gangster's more modern and efficient way of making money, forcing the methodical Dillinger to team up with the impulsive Baby Face Nelson. It's the filmmakers' way of looking to the future while respecting the past. And for a little more than two and a half hours, this big-budget summer blowout brings that past vividly to life.