Screenwriters: Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard (interview), Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham
Running time: 140 mins
Perversely, the Great Depression stands out as one of the most glamorous eras in American history, providing just the right conditions for the rise of a folk hero. Bank robber John Dillinger was feted in this way as a gun-toting Robin Hood among the hungry masses and here, under writer-director Michael Mann, Johnny Depp slips into the role as easy as a pickpocket in your granny's handbag. The problem is, you can see it all coming; every step from rise to fall. There are no surprises except that Mann (who brought us searing thriller Heat) has managed to completely miss the point.
Bryan Burrough's book, which inspired the film, reveals how the cross-country crime wave led by Dillinger and co. spawned the FBI, a pioneering bureau of investigation that could traverse state lines and employ scientific methods. Agent Melvin Purvis is at the sharp end of the action, fixing Dillinger in his sights as Public Enemy No.1. It should be meat for Christian Bale, but instead it's just the latest in a line of roles that see him upstaged by the bad guy (The Dark Knight, Terminator Salvation). Mann is too distracted by the legend of Dillinger to care about the piecing together of actual facts. He pushes the G-Men to the sidelines and worse, makes them the bad guys.
In a prison break to open the story, Dillinger is seen mourning the death of a fellow inmate but stops himself from killing the man responsible. In contrast, Agent Purvis is introduced shooting a man in the back with a cool, steady hand. It's a one-sided story from the get-go. From then on, the focus is on Dillinger on the run. He's always assured a hiding place and a spot on the front page of every newspaper because he's considered a man of the people. He feels the same right of ownership when it comes to Billie, a coat-check girl played by Marion Cotillard (who won an Oscar for La Vie En Rose). Initially she takes offence to this, but rapidly becomes less interesting when, only a day after they meet, she falls misty-eyed into his arms.
Dillinger revels in the glory of being loved, eating out at 'places to be seen' and attending the races while Purvis and his crew are always one step behind. And so it goes until Dillinger is pinched once more. Inevitably though, he breaks out again and walks wilfully into another Hollywood cliché: deciding to pack it all in after One Last Job. Threatening to chuck a spanner in the works is Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham as the notorious Baby Face Nelson; the most volatile, least sane member of the gang. Sadly, the film is running on empty by this stage. Mann too often stops to indulge in cute moments, like Dillinger strolling into Chicago PD and checking the baseball scores. Even the shootouts lack energy.
Needing some sort of punch, Mann makes a late grab for the heartstrings. The G-Men stand between Dillinger and Billie, but his audacious plan to nab her from under their noses again speaks more of his narcissism than it does about true love. Throughout, Billie is treated as a prize not a person. Dillinger never thinks twice about the price she must pay for being with him so when Mann builds him up as the knight in shining armour it feels totally disingenuous. He, along with poor old Billie Frechette, is blinded by Dillinger's charm and the cost is high. Many talented people, but especially Christian Bale (and the real-life crime-fighters he represents), are short-changed by his clouded vision. The brightly glaring digital photography doesn't help, but in the end the worst crime is that the story is just plain dull.
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