Fantasy Update: Public Enemy No. 1 – Crime Biopics

by Andy Paschen

As dedicated readers and Web users that clicked the wrong Google link have come to know, I believed that Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as the nefarious John Dillinger along with Christian Bale, Billy Crudup and The Wire cast mates Herc and Judge Phelan (Big ups to The Wire, neck-and-neck with Battlestar Galactica for best TV ever made) would be the best movie of the summer.

I was wrong.


Welcome to the two best parts of the movie.

Welcome to the two best parts of the movie.


Why? It’s not because I over-valued Johnny Depp’s talent as an actor — all the man does is create likable, deep characters at a level so high only Leonardo DiCaprio can call him a peer — Depp was the only thing worth remembering about the entire film. It’s not because I assumed after The Dark Knight that Christian Bale would transform himself as an actor and solely sign on to excellent projects (if he did so he would have never been in Terminator Salvation). And it’s not because I falsely  thought anything that director Michael Mann touched would be pure gold (Let’s face it, Miami Vice and Collateral can’t hold a candle to Last of the Mohicans and Heat).

No, mien friends, it’s because I ignored the fact that this film was a crime biopics, a notoriously difficult genre to pull of successfully. 

When I think of movies like Public Enemies, i.e. crime biopics, I think of Blow, American Gangster, Goodfellas and Heat. The films I just mentioned center around one successful criminal (and sometimes the law enforcement officer trying to stop them) and his rise and fall from power. Now, to be sure, all of the four aforementioned films are some of the top crime biopics out there, but they still show a great example of the limit of flexibility of the genre. Don’t understand watch?

Criminal rises to power. Criminal falls for a woman (or another vice). Criminal goes largely unnoticed. Criminal gets so big that law enforcement now hunts criminal. Criminal survives a close call. Criminal tells woman, “One more score, then I’m out of the game forever.” Criminal goes for one last score. Criminal is killed or arrested before or during the last score.

Sure, there are some variations here, maybe there is no woman, maybe someone close to the criminal rats him out. What ever way you slice it, you can see a formula brewing. The key for the makers of these films is to figure out a way to compel the reader that this isn’t going to happen, that maybe the bad guy (who the entire crowd is rooting for) does get away. Maybe crime pays after all.

But in Public Enemies, even though John Dillinger escapes from custody time and time again, you can’t help feel like the man is doomed from the start. And I’m not saying that as someone who knew the historical facts about ol’ J.D., I had no idea if or how he met his end. But the never ending feeling of dread, combined with the fact that there was no consistent underlying conflict other than “will he make it?” made me think the movie was like a Cesaer salad: sure I like Cesaer salad, but it never stands out in a crowd.

That being said, Johnny Depp was excellent. His main squeeze, the exotically beautiful Marion Cotillard was excellent, as was the chemistry between them. The soundtrack was fan-tastic. And Chicago is literally the greatest place to shoot a movie in the world. In fact, some of the scenes were filmed in the alley behind my apartment in Lincoln Park.  

But as The Above Ground Pool Party’s closer, Public Enemies just doesn’t cut the mustard I’m afraid. We’re not talking Byung Hung-Kim bad or anything, not even Eric Gagne post-‘roids bad, but certainly not good enough to close for a championship team.


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