This Johnny Depp movie seemed to come and go, but I never felt the urge to see it. I finally got to see it on DVD and now know why. There are a lot of terrific actors in it, and not just the leads. But the direction and writing are a little less than terrific at times.
It's like the movie can't make up it's mind whether to be BONNIE & CLYDE or ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. There are bits where the soundtrack's lively and almost light and joyful, ala B&C moving the action and the images along like an upbeat song.
Then there's long drawn out scenes where it seems to take every character three or ten times as long to say their lines than it would you or I in real life, or for that matter, screen actors back in the 1930s, the era of The Great Depression that the movie's set in. And we know we're supposed to be taking these slow scenes more seriously because the music underlying them is either incredibly epic, to the point of almost parodying what old Italian-influenced epics used to sound like, or it's Billie Holiday singing on a recording she made after the 1930s.
But why worry about veracity in a film that has John Dillinger (Depp) as the most wanted man in the USA—Public Enemy Number One—get out of his car with a gun in his hand and walk half way across the middle of a street in the midst of dozens of cops holding machine guns and pause while another one of those drawn out scenes is drawn out some more before he turns and walks back to his car and gets in with all these cops and citizens not noticing an armed non-cop who happens to be the most famous and sought criminal of his day etc.
But there's so many great actors in this flick that I still enjoyed watching it and was just sorry that some of them didn't have bigger parts. There are the obvious ones like Stephen Lang, long one of my favorites and he does a great job, ending up with the last words in the flick.
And of course Depp is always fun to watch work even when the writing and direction don't work so well.
And his co-stars Christian Bale and Marion Cottilard are also fun to watch, though their acting styles are almost exact opposites. Bale being best as the stoic handsome man-of-few words. In scenes where he plays that in this film his work is fun to watch. In other scenes where he's trying to maintain a good old boy accent or a 1930s G-man straight shooter posture, he's almost unintentionally funny.
Cottilard on the other hand plays her mob moll character with a lot more range, but because of the direction and writing, in some scenes she seems like a bright new discovery (even though most of us remember her from her awe inspiring Oscar winning role in LA VIE EN ROSE as Edith Piaf) and in others like she's in the wrong movie, at least to me.
But there are many smaller roles in this attempt at an epic, some that work and some that don't (the actor playing Baby Face Nelson is so over the top I thought I was back in O BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME? only in that movie it works because it's intentional, in PUBLIC ENEMIES it doesn't because it isn't).
I'd like to just mention three undersung film actors who don't work nearly enough, and all of whom I consider friends even though I haven't seen most of them in years.
James Russo—who blew me away the first time I saw him act (before I met him) in the debut run of the stage play EXTREMITIES—has an almost wordless part at the beginning of PUBLIC ENEMIES as an older convict who helps in a breakout but is shot and literally slips away from the other escapees.
Don Harvey's another terrific stage actor who I did a small film with a long time ago and who I first noticed as an actor before I met him in the film CASUALTIES OF WAR. In PUBLIC ENEMIES he has only one small scene with Depp and Cottilard as an anonymous customer trying to get his coat at a nightclub hatcheck stand. But he plays it totally realistically.
And John Michael Bolger, an actor I've known well for years. He has a relatively big part in PUBLIC ENEMIES, in terms of all the character actors. He plays a crooked Chicago detective who persuades "the woman in red"—as we knew her as kids from the legend we grew up with—to give Dillinger up to the cops in the famous scene at the Biograph. Only in PUBLIC ENEMIES she's the woman in orange and white. Bolger plays his scenes so authentically you wish he had a bigger part.
Man, a gangster flick with those three actors in the leads—Russo, Harvey and Bolger—now that I'd pay some money to see. As it is, I had to be satisfied with watching a too-long attempt to recreate a 'thirties gangster flick without a 'thirties feel for the times and the movies of those times.
PS: As for my post-brain surgery progress, well watching this complicated flick was a milestone for me, though the rhythms of it may have seemed even more uneven due to my still recovering to some extent. And I drove my car today for the first time in a few days but my brain wasn't functioning entirely the way it used to. When I got in and started it the radio was on. I had my friend Sue with me and it was too much stimuli so I turned the radio off. Only I pushed the wrong button (I drive a Prius which is run by buttons) and turned the car off instead, missing the radio button by many inches (and the starter is a big round one the size of a half dollar, while the radio one is a slim little rectangle, not easy to mistake them, which I didn't, my mind just confused what I intended). So, life goes on, interestingly and carefully and joyfully and mildly confusingly.