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Two Hours with Dillinger

Movie Title: Public Enemies (2009)
Spoilers: No

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When you hear the word “gang” or the words “gang member,” what is it that first comes to your mind? No doubt it is of skinny, tattooed kids with little parental influence and obsessions with hand signs, colors, and bandanas. They grew up in bad neighborhoods and learned to steal cars by the age of ten. Maybe you were born in the great depression and think of something else, but this is the image that many of us have.

These modern “gangstas” are pussies, cowardly groups of usually small-sized descendants of Aztecs who have no security or courage or self-confidence, and so they seek to find it by identifying with likeminded cowards. Real men fought for control of power in the old west. They carried huge guns at their hips. There were duels in the streets that resulted in death. But these men didn’t kill out of cowardice. They killed out of the need to keep order.

These new excuses for gangsters have seen some hard times and turned to a life of crime, but they’re not “gangsters” in the truest sense of the word. They aren’t as powerful, as mean, as determined, as methodical, or as cruel as those of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. If you want to learn about real gangs, look up Al Capone, a man who could make anyone talk using a blowtorch and a pair of pliers or just a baseball bat on the kneecaps.

There was Lester J. Gillis, or as he came to be known, “Baby Face Nelson,” a man with a nastily violent temper who would open fire on large crowds of pedestrians, as well as the police in a getaway. There was Carroll and Hamilton and Van Meter and the rest of the Dillinger gang. And there was Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd—all dangerous men who made their infamous marks on society in ways that these pansi-fied street creatures of today never could.

Public Enemies boasts supreme performances by Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, Dillinger’s hot-on-the-trail FBI opposition. Dillinger, true to history and as played by Depp, is a charming and always-confident killer, a ballsy bank robber, infamous for more than two-dozen high-profile bank robberies and the murder of a number of police officers and FBI agents.

Dillinger is a proud man, cocky, the odd mixture of impulsiveness and precision. He’s dangerous enough to need entire task forces assigned to bring him down and proud enough to stroll around inside police stations at a busy hour when he knows everyone is looking for him. His charisma and charm only add to his dangerous demure.

Pervis has the experience, a seasoned feel for stringing up the worst of outlaws. Seen in film are his senses of principle and accountability in a laid-back and always studious mindset. Pervis never loses his head. He's got his bases covered. He does his job right the first time.

Public Enemies is a classy film, careful to bring with it the dignity and respect for culture and conduct of 1930’s America. Look at the segregated classes; look at how the women dressed; listen to the language used, the accents, and the lingo; everything from the pick-up lines to the careless public smoking…that’s the way things were. It’s like looking at an old pic and you say to yourself: “That’s soooooooo not like today!”

Director Michael Mann’s research is solid. This stuff happened. The so-called “lady in red,” Anna Sage, played by Branka Katic, isn’t there the way you’d expect. There’s no lady in red, only one in white and orange. That’s the way it really happened. In those days, law enforcement was crude, the bad guys were a whole lot of cruel, and banks everywhere were afraid to open their doors for business…why? Because of a few determined men who knew no bounds.

The screenplay follows the historical unfolding of Dillinger right after his famous escape from prison with the aid of a fake gun. From there, you follow a hell-raising, woman-adoring Dillinger for over a year's time until his demise outside of a movie theatre on July 22nd of 1934.

The frustrating thing is, you get to learn so very little about John Herbert Dillinger. There’s no psychoanalyzing him, no getting inside his head. He does what he does because that’s who he is. There’s no intimidating him or correcting him or keeping him in a cell. In a way, he’s like Captain Kirk’s archenemy, Khan—immortally minded, but fatally ambitious. The high he gets from robbing banks is unparalleled, better than the love of women.

But Dillinger loves his women. He falls in love with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and in lifting her up with his affection, he gets the satisfaction of bestowing the gift of his powerful, sheltering arms on a weaker vessel, and that speaks to his sense of purpose. That’s as far as the film takes us inside Dillinger's mind. You’ll just have to be satisfied with what is on the outside, like bullets and bodies of policemen lying dead on sidewalks. The film is all about Dillinger. Critique it all you want, but it won’t matter. What you will take home from it is…Dillinger, the man and the menace. No apologies here. It caters to no one. That made the film good.

It also subtracted from its quality. The sometimes questionable camerawork and contrast lighting is not as bad as the fact that if you’re not familiar with the Dillinger story and characters, the only thing you’ll get from the movie is an action-packed exchange of gunfire and some highly polished performances. The higher, more subtle points of what is happening in the film and why is never well explained, which will leave a number of viewers running to Wikipedia afterwards.

But that’s okay. It should be enough that you got to spend two hours with Dillinger, a man who claimed a large chunk of history for himself. That’s something these 5’2 descendants of Aztecs who call themselves “gang members” today will never be able to upstage.

(JH)

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Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: R
Summation: Melvin Pervis is chosen by J. Edgar Hoover to head up efforts to stop bank robber John Dillinger and his fellow gang members.
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: James Russo “Walter Dietrich,” David Wenham “Harry 'Pete' Pierpont,” Christian Stolte “Charles Makley,” Jason Clarke “John 'Red' Hamilton,” Johnny Depp “John Dillinger,” John Judd “Turnkey,” Stephen Dorff “Homer Van Meter,” Michael Vieau “Ed Shouse,” John Kishline “Guard Dainard,” Wesley Walker “Jim Leslie,” John Scherp “Earl Adams”
Genre: Drama / Action / Crime / Thriller / Biography / History

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