Let me start off by saying, I don't know a damn thing about the 1930s bank robber John Dillinger. But that's okay, because hardly anyone does. We, the audience, are encountering this famous gangster for the first time. The mystery of why anyone decided to do a biopic about him is what attracted us all...or me at least.
Once I started watching this crime thriller, I was waiting for what I like to call the cheek-to-cheek: that moment when a character does or says something that brings a smile to my face. It's that moment when you make a connection with a character—either of worship, respect, affection, or what have you. John Dillinger is a man who inspired the cheek-to-cheek on more than one occassion. Because of this, my friend and I began a heated debated on whether he was more badass than Jesse James. After seeing the The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—and nearly being bored to death by it—I voted heavily in favor for Dillinger. He was a man of action and adventure just like Jesse. He was a man of morals and was a gentleman towards women just like Jesse. He was even good with a gun and capable of holding his own in a shoot out just like Jesse. So why do I favor Dillinger over James? Because on more than one occassion he was shown staring death in the face and snickering mischievously to himself. He was as fearless as an outlaw could be, and in every scenario--from fielding press inquiries while being hauled off to jail to wooing the girl of his dreams. While his attempts at flirting with Billie, a coat check girl, may be considered barbaric, since he practically ordered her to be his girl, his self-confidence was pretty impressive, considering how uninterested she seemed. lol
The greatest proof of his bravado, however, were in two specific scenes. The first occurred when he was talking logistics of a bank job in a crowded movie theater. Suddenly, his face appeared on the screen and the lights went up. The audience was instructed to search for him by "looking to their left and looking to their right." He didn't move his head one bit, and slowly as the camera crept towards him, he began to grin uncontrollably. The suspense slowly killed me but excited him. An even better scene was towards the end when he literally walked into the police precinct where the task force that was created to hunt him and his boys down was located. He strolled past their desks, eyed their evidence-covered bulletin boards, and even stopped to ask the officers crowded around a radio what the game score was. Fearless.
Johnny Depp & Christian Bale
Bringing these characters to life and embodying personas from a different decade is a considerably difficult task. Since I'm accustomed to Bale being front-and-center, it sort of annoyed me how little screen time he was given. However, he did a good job of expressing the tug-of-war such a man like Detective Melvin Purvis would experience in having to be brutal enough to hunt a gangster down, but cautious enough to retain his humanity. The inner turmoil was visible in every facial expression he possessed. Depp had a harder task. Making a bank robber with a tommy gun lovable isn't an easy one. But the subtle grins of triumph and his obvious yearning for Billie (Oscar-winner Mario Cotillard) brought him to a level that the audience could relate to. He was even a little funny. My favorite sarcastic line he uttered was when Purvis asked Dillinger, "What keeps you up at night?" and he responded, "Coffee." It made him less of a money-grubbing bottom-feeder and more of an enterprising man in search of adventure at any price.
As for the creative licenses that each actor took in trying to create these period characters, I found myself hearing and seeing a little Obama in Bale's performance, and a smidge of Brad Pitt's inaudible Snatch character in Depp's. I really don't know which one's weirder. Luckily, neither was too distracting.
Michael Mann's Writing and Direction
The man behind Ali, Collateral, and Miami Vice unsurprisingly did an impeccable job of capturing the period. It was a time when banks feared men in suits and not masks. But what impressed me the most was how he kept you in suspense. Sure, a movie about a bank robber constantly on the run is bound to be suspenseful, but I believe there were certain scenes purposefully added to raise your heart rate. Besides the scenes where he simply waltzed into danger, there was another that's a perfect example of this. After being arrested, Dillinger escapes with the help of a cellmate. He steals the fastest car in the precinct and manages to drive away from it without alerting the soldiers who have camped-out around the jail in order to prevent anyone from breaking him out. Once he's down the street, he stops at a red light, which just so happens to be right next to a crowd of armed soldiers hanging out on the corner, drinking coffee. One of them gives Dillinger a look and we're shown the red light once again. Dillinger grips his gun and we're showng the red light again. The soldier doesn't recognize him, but he looks rather suspicious. By this point everyone in the theater is thinking the exact same thing, "OH MY GOD! TURN GREEN ALREADY!" Once it changes and he's free to drive away, we still don't breath until Dillinger does. It's at this point that the bond between this antihero and the audience is solidified. We've been through the trenches right alongside him and we're rooting for a happy ending.
Mann also did an amazing job with capturing powerful moments. In one scene, he successfully breaks out a few of his boys, but one of them roughs up a guard too much, distracting everyone and before you know it, the oldest escapee gets shot. Dillinger tries to get him to the car, but he ends up being dragged as he slowly dies. He never lets go of his hand as long as his eyes stayed locked with his. We watch as they slowly lose life and Dillinger slowly loses his grip.
I'm not quite sure if this film has a moral or even if it's worth searching for one, but Dillinger lived by a code of life where he believed that it should be lived to the fullest in any way you should desire. Purvis thought that Dillinger should turn himself in because his friends were dying, but he didn't understand that it was because they died that he felt the need to live even more—and to live his way and no one else's.
Should you watch it?
This isn't an explosions-filled summer blockbuster, but there's plenty (and I do mean plenty) of shooting for the action-lovers. There's a sultry love story for the romantics. And there are little doses of humor for the chucklers. It isn't a Godfather-type gangster flick. It's more 3:10 to Yuma than The Assassination of Jesse James. So if that's what you're in the mood for, I'd recommend it.