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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  Public Enemies



Director Michael Mann (2009)

This film is largely about overcoats. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), gentleman bank robber, knows the meaning of a good overcoat. He gets through a whole wardrobe of them throwing them over the shoulders of women he's just met who happen to look a bit chilly. One overcoat left at a crime scene this way is analysed in detail by the cops, its quality telling them they are up against a superior kind of hoodlum. He's getting nowhere with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) until he gives her a fur-collared overcoat as a present from which moment she will do anything for him. As soon as he takes his overcoat off he gets nicked and remains vulnerable in shirtsleeves until he escapes, grabbing a tan leather number on his way out of jail which he then wears under a bigger overcoat, the double protection at one point, it seems, rendering him invisible to the dozens of armed police surrounding him.

This is one of those adventures in which the bad guys, Robin Hood style, are the good guys, wearing better overcoats and simply being better all round than inept, unprincipled and brutal cops that are chasing them. The film itself wears a particularly glamorous overcoat, fetishising the fashions and decor of the day and taking an awfully long time to get under the overcoats of its protagonists. There's lots of shooting, with guns and cameras, before the characters emerge in any complexity, the possible exception being J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), under pressure to get his new-fangled FBI to deliver. We know what's under his overcoat, and he talks like a grown-up Cartman out of South Park, squeaking as if he's being squeezed by his stays.

Hoover initiates a moral panic and a War on Crime marking out Dillinger as public enemy number one, like Osama Bin Laden in the War on Terror, and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is the cold, calculating cop assigned to catch him. He announces that he will use the scientific methods of modern policing, which doesn't make his agents any more effective but it's clear we've got a paradigm shift going on here. Dillinger's final spree begins as Prohibition ends. We're entering a era that will see the end of the old fashioned bank-robbing gangster. A new, more sophisticated, machine-gun free breed of criminal is being born, and they dump Dillinger as a dangerous romantic who's undermining the profession.

It's love that eventually brings him to justice, of course, as he returns from hiding to the police-infested streets of Chicago to take care of Billie. Although even here, cunningly disguised as Johnny Depp, he's able to walk right in on the detectives investigating him, ask the baseball score and walk right out again, not before checking out evidence of the destruction his invulnerability has caused to the people around him.

He's finally shot coming out of an old gangster film by a grey-haired agent who we've only noticed in the past ten minutes and who seems to be a cut above the others, staying the arm of the ugly pale sadist beating up Billie in the cell, guessing correctly which movie Dillinger is going to see (though we all would've known it wouldn't be the Shirley Temple) and showing, at the death, some human feeling. He can't let Purvis know that, of course. It would expose him as one of the old school. And their days, like Dillinger's, are numbered.

July 13, 2009

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