Loving the bad guys …

John Dillinger was very smart and courageous in his exploits, totally loyal to his friends, took on the giants, and won again and again, against great odds!  Oh, yes, and he was “gentlemanly,” throwing a coat over the shoulders of his female hostages.  To all that Johnny Depp adds his star power charm and a boyish cowlick.  What’s not to love?  Outside of the fact that he’s a gangster.

He preferred not to kill — a point made in a couple of philosophical pauses in the movie by this otherwise unintrospective character — but if your time is spent robbing banks and evading the law with blasts of machine guns and other fast violence, it’s bound to happen often.  He was called “The American Robin Hood” but he didn’t rob the rich to give to the poor — he robbed for money.  Yet, law abiding citizen that I am, I found myself rooting for him as was most of the audience, just as many rooted for him back in the early ’30’s.  Sepia tones bring us back to that earlier period, and the photography is often angled close-ups of large machinery that hook us into the large and grinding emotions.

We also root for Dillinger because his ultimate opponent, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, is so easy to hate, a mean spirited martinet driven by selfish ambition.  But Melvin Purvis, Dillinger’s one-on-one opponent whom Hoover puts in direct charge of the case is admirable — he has a high minded view of law enforcement which lends a larger meaning to his manhunt, he doesn’t like to kill either, and Christian Bale who plays Purvis is handsome and charming in his own tight, disciplined way with 1930’s slicked back hair (read:  opposite of anarchic cowlick).  Still, you root for Dillinger — after all, you don’t know anything about how much Purvis loves his girlfriend — and the movie builds wonderful suspense as it moves from Dillinger springing his friends from prison at great danger to himself, to daring robberies, to unbelievable escapes to robberies to escapes until …

… Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billy Ferchette, played by Marion Cotillard is brutally beaten by law enforcement authorities to induce her to rat on him — she doesn’t — and for all the invincibility Dillinger’s shown, we’re pretty sure by this point that he won’t be able to spring her, and so what if he did?  look what he’s already let her in for.  There’s no way he could possibly pay for that.  So by the time the inevitable betrayal happens that leaves him dead on a Chicago sidewalk, we’re ready to give him up too.  Public Enemies considerately resolves the ethical issue of the anti-hero and lets the audience off the hook — this is a true Hollywood movie in the old sense, part of its nostalgic appeal.

It would be a better, even more engaging movie if we understood the backstories of the characters.  The little said about Dillinger is too thin to help us see him as fully three-dimensional, as is true for the others.  It reminds me of the old Dick Tracy detective comic strips — characters outlined, fast movement from frame to frame, and you do stay with it.