Friday, January 22, 2010

Must-Watch Friday - Public Enemies

Modern Heat author Heidi Rice's not-so-secret passion for all things Johnny Depp gets completely out of control as she digs deep to find a poignant romance lurking behind the gunplay in Michael Mann's epic biopic of thirties bankrobber John Dillinger.

All right, I'll come clean here and say everyone who knows me - and quite a lot of people who don't - are well aware I have a bit of a soft spot for Hollywood maverick Johnny Depp. Not only is he a mighty pretty bloke, who happens to be the same age as me, he's so wonderfully quirky and unpredictable in the roles he chooses to play. Let's face it, anyone who can fit a Michael Jackson impersonation (in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and a Keith Richards impression (in Pirates of the Caribbean) into one career can not be boring.

But if Johnny has one minor weakness for me (apart from his dodgy teeth in Pirates and Charlie) it's that he very rarely appears as a romantic hero in a movie, eventhough he's invariably the leading man. For the purposes of this blog, I'm not going to count Captain Jack Sparrow, eventhough he should have been the love interest in Pirates, because for some strange reason Kiera chose that plonker Orlando Bloom instead!! Come off it Kiera, decent dental work isn't everything!

Anyhow, that travesty aside, Johnny seems to be a little shy about exploiting his popularity with the ladies. Bless. So it was with great enthusiasm that I watched Michael Mann's lavish period biopic Public Enemies and discovered a touching, tragic romance lurking behind all those testosterone-fuelled, bullet ridden gun battles.

Now, before I get completely carried away, I should point out that as much as Hollywood movies often like to romanticise the exploits of Depression-era bankrobbers (a young and gorgeous Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow anyone?), director Michael Mann and his star make no bones about the fact that Public Enemy John Dillinger was a very bad boy indeed - violent, ruthless, vainglorious and even a touch unhinged, with (according to this movie at least) only a throwaway resemblance to Robin Hood.

Dillinger robbed banks, shot and killed people and while he may have had his own particular code, he wasn't someone that most people would want to meet while working as a cashier (me included). Depp's Dillinger may be wildly charismatic and devilishly handsome (this is a Hollywood movie after all) but that dangerous edge isn't always attractive, especially when he starts punching a guy at a hat check with very little provocation. True to his form as an actor who takes risks, Depp is prepared to show Dillinger's dark side and for that I applaud him.

So hang on a minute, you're probably shouting, where's the romance? 

If this guy's a violent sociopath and Depp's not afraid to play him that way what's to make him romantic? Well, as all we writers of romance know, when you've got a particularly challenging hero, what you need is a heroine who's up to the job of taming him, or at least showing he has another side.

Enter Marion Cotillard as hat-check girl Billie Frechette. Now, I'm a huge fan of Ms Cotillard, so much so that I didn't even mind her getting up close and personal with my Johnny! Much. Cotillard is stunningly beautiful without being conventionally pretty, but she's also an incredibly powerful actress. Personally I found her Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose nothing short of mesmerising, even if the film itself was flipping hard work.

Billie and John's romance in this film is contained in a few key scenes. They're both damaged people and their incendiary but doomed affair is raw and touching and always overshadowed by the knowledge that it will never last. John is obsessive and has a recklessness that borders on a death wish, while Billie is too needy and too loyal and far too vulnerable, but the simmering sexual and emotional tension between them fairly sizzles off the screen.

Take the scene in a fancy restaurant where they first hear their signature tune 'Bye Bye Blackbird' and Johnny tells her boldly that he robs banks. Billie's shocked by his admission, but she's also excited.

John: 'The only thing that's important is where someone's going.'
Billie: 'And where are you going?'
John: 'Anywhere I want... and I'm taking you with me.'

He promises to look after her and she believes him. To the extent that when she is arrested and beaten to get information about his whereabouts she not only protects him, but tells the policeman interrogating her: 'When my Johnny finds out how you slapped around his girl, you know what's going to happen to you fat boy?'

For a poor woman in a dead-end job, the love of a man as notorious as Dillinger gives her a power she's never had. And what does Johnny get? Adoration obviously, but also a purpose, because Billie is the only thing in the end that he has left that's worth fighting for. And Johnny loves to fight!

Their story gives a compelling emotional context to all the guy action... Especially in the final scene, when we hear the message for Billie that Dillinger whispered to the arresting officer before dying in a pool of blood on a Chicago street. It's heart-breaking stuff, so have your hankies at the ready.

Is any of this the real story of Dillinger and Freschette? Who knows, but Depp and Cotillard make it seem true. 

So there you have it. Johnny Depp as a romantic hero, but with a dangerous edge, of course.

I won't bother with the warm and fuzzy rating this week, for obvious reasons.... But as an added incentive to see this movie, for all those with a little soft spot for Christian Bale (yes, that'd be you Ms Blake!!) he has a nicely complex role as Dillinger's nemesis, the G-Man Melvin Purvis.

Heidi Rice's latest Modern Heat Public Affair, Secretly Expecting is still out in the UK and due out in the US as a Presents in March. She's currently beavering away on her next Modern Heat novel — when she's not watching films starring Johnny Depp or any of her other favourite movie star distractions, sorry, research inspiration. 

Have a natter with her on her blog or through her website.


  1. I have to confess to being a Johnny Depp fan myself, Heidi. From way back. Orlando Bloom leaves me cold, but bring on the Johnny! :-) Will have to see this movie when it eventually comes to NZ.

  2. I loved him in Public Enemies and was so upset at the end, even though I knew what was going to happen.

  3. Jackie, somehow I figured you might be a Johnny fan... you must see this movie, he's seriously HOT in it!!

    Debs, know exactly what you mean by the ending, I was completely gutted.. Whether Dillinger really managed to whisper something with half his head shot off doesn't matter, I totally believed it.