At this time of year the theaters are filled with action movies based on comic books. Public Enemies has a similar style even though it is actually based on a non-fiction book by journalist Bryan Burrough.
If you don’t already know the story of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, you are likely to find the first part of the movie pretty confusing. There’s a large number of men in suits and they spend a lot of time shooting at each other with submachine guns. It’s hard to be sure which ones are the cops and which ones are the robbers.
Eventually the story takes shape as a contest between two larger-than-life characters. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) had a lot of the characteristics of a comic book or pulp fiction hero. He is depicted as wily, handsome and charming, given to wisecracks and heroic pronouncements. He takes pleasure in outwitting his foes, escaping from tight spots through resourcefulness and physical courage. He is sort of like Zorro, except that instead of succoring the oppressed he robs banks for a living and kills without remorse.
Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI agent charged with tracking Dillinger down, is a man so straight-laced that when he gives marching orders to his men they look at him dumbfounded, as if they can’t believe that this guy is for real. Efficient and cold-blooded, Purvis kills bank robbers without showing any emotion. He also doesn’t display any particular concern for the innocent bystanders who might be endangered by all the machine gun fire.
In addition to bank robbers, Purvis has to deal with his boss J. Edgar Hoover, who is portrayed by Billy Crudup as a pompous, publicity-hungry weasel.
If this were a 1930s gangster movie of the sort that John Dillinger liked to watch, it would spend a lot of time developing the characters. It would show that both the cop and the criminal started out as good boys who loved their mothers, but one of them took a wrong turn and ended up in a life of crime. They would meet in a final confrontation and the criminal would have a spectacular and violent yet poignant death scene. We would agree that he got what he deserved, yet morn his wasted potential.
This movie is not about to give us anything as cheesy as that, but what it does give us isn’t terribly satisfying. The good guys and bad guys are all so unsympathetic that it is hard to care about the outcome. It also doesn’t work as a mindless popcorn thriller. What with all the characters who look, dress and talk alike, shooting at each other in dimly-lit scenes, it takes intense concentration to keep track of who is who and what is going on.