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Public Enemies: Johnny Depp And Michael Mann On The Real John Dillinger
John-Paul Pryor , July 8th, 2009 07:21

Outlaw? Folk Hero? Celebrity? Johnny Depp and Michael Mann talk about the real Public Enemy Number 1. John-Paul reports

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"I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars and you... what else do you need to know?"

– Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Public Enemies

There is something peculiarly satisfying about macho male archetypes, and that goes double for the 1930s gangster – he was generally sharply-dressed, had great taste in showgirls, carried his Tommy-Gun in a violin case, listened to jazz and blues, drank whiskey and robbed banks with a cigarette hanging coolly from his bottom lip. His modus operandi was both endearingly simple and enviably clear – he wanted to live fast and he wanted live free. He was the ultimate existential hero, grabbing hold of his life with fierce conviction.

Perhaps there is no better example of this than John Dillinger, the man for whom the term Public Enemy Number One was coined, a man who was as much a bank robber as he was a celebrity, and an enduring folk hero whose legendary reputation has no parallel. "In his time he was very current and contemporary," says director Michael Mann. "He was popular for good reason. There had been 140 bank failures in Chicago, and most people blamed the banks. He had the sense to treat hostages well because he knew they would all be interviewed." Indeed, Dillinger was given to treating his hostages to heady doses of his charm and wit, endearing himself to even his captors, who could never keep him behind bars for long.

Sure, you might think you have had enough of Hollywood blockbusters, but let's face it; you're going to fucking love this, mainly because everybody loves the roguish anti-hero, and we all hold a very special place in our hearts for anti-heroes that are known to their close friends as Johnny. So, who better to play the explosive bank robber than Johnny Depp, a man who actually hails from the same part of Indiana as Dillinger. "That was when I realised I knew him," says the iconic actor. "He was my grandfather running moonshine; my stepfather doing time in a Statesville penitentiary. He spent ten years in prison for some youthful, drunken, ignorant crime and arrives on the scene in the ultimate existential arena, and he says, 'I'm gonna stand up against these people'."

"He explodes out of prison and lives the dynamic of three or four lifetimes in one," confirms Mann. "He had no concept of the future. He could pull off great bank robberies but he couldn't organise next Thursday."

Jesus, isn't that just how we would all love to live our lives, with the true 'fuck it' exuberance that gives you the balls to walk into a bank with a gun and leave with hundreds of thousands in filthy lucre. The simple fact is that you are going to croak one day either way, so you might as live it to the optimum, right? And, in a way, that's what makes this film so special, the engaging crossover between Dillinger and Depp – Depp, much like Dillinger, is his generation’s hero; he's the smoking, drinking, super-cool motherfucker of modern cinema who, when asked by a fawning female journalist at a London press conference the secret to keeping his good looks, answers with a sardonic wit that would no doubt befit his character – "Stay away from red wine and liquor, stay in your room and watch reality TV. That's how I do it." She wilts, obviously.

Okay, so I haven't told you too much about the film, about how it portrays the nascent FBI and features a brooding and troubled Christian Bale as the G man who hunts Dillinger and finally brings him down. Neither have I mentioned the excellent and stunning Marion Cotillard who plays Dillinger's lover Billie Frechette ("I fell in love with Michael as a director, I wanted to be perfect for him. I was touched by him"), but hell, what more do you need to know? Just go and see it as soon as you can because it's incredibly life-affirming, and it’s about sticking it to those fat cat bastards that have royally fucked-up the global economy. Moreover, it's about as close to authentic as you can imagine a Hollywood movie to be. It's also Johnny Depp's first turn as a human being in quite some time, a far cry from the theatrical, and brilliant creations for which he has become famed – Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd – and diving into Dillinger’s psyche is something the actor obviously relished. "When I was nine or ten years old I had a fascination with Dillinger. There were time's when I felt his presence," he says, talking about Mann's predilection for shooting on the actual sites in which Dillinger's frantic battles against society’s constrictions unfolded. "To be able to fire my Thompson out of the very window he shot his out of – it was very invigorating." Invigorating? It must have been about the most fun a human being can have. Watch the film or just buy a gun and go for it. It's up to you.

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