Public Enemies

1996, Movie, R, 95 mins

Review

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This synthetic retelling of the Ma Barker legend vibrates with lip-smacking sex and blood pellet-spattering violence, but to little avail. Featuring a large cast of actors who seem uncomfortable in their period costumes, PUBLIC ENEMIES is far inferior to Roger Corman's BLOODY MAMA, which delved into the Barker clan's psychosexual dynamics much more credibly.

Sexually abused by her father and brothers, little Kate Clarke (Leah Best) runs off and becomes a succeessful moonshiner in a male-dominated crimescape. The grown Kate (Theresa Russell) catches the eye of decent drudge George Barker (Richard Eden), and they marry. After raising four headstrong sons, she tires of getting nowhere fast and instructs her boys in fast pay-offs, culminating in the robbery-shooting of a venal paymaster (Tom Ward). The Barkers' callous disregard for human life garners headlines and attracts the attention of J. Edgar Hoover (Brian Peck), who orders G-man Melvin Purvis (Dan Cortese) to nail Ma and her brood: sharpshooting Herman (Joseph Lindsey), oversexed Arthur--nicknamed "Doc" (James Marsden), heroin-addicted getaway driver Lloyd (Joseph Dain), and crime tyro Freddie (Gavin Harrison). But the Barkers cut a huge crime swath and prove difficult to nab.

Using one of Doc's fancy women as a decoy at a posh hotel, the Feds ambush the elusive Barkers but fail even to scratch them. Big-timer Alvin Karpis (Frank Stallone) teams up with Ma Barker, but challenges her authority with a robbery that culminates in Herman's death and Freddie's arrest. After facilitating Freddie's escape, a bent jail guard, Arthur Dunlop (Eric Roberts), is welcomed into the Barker fold and Ma's bed.

Branching out, the Barkers adopt Dunlop's scheme to kidnap a millionaire for $100,000. Due to Dunlop's drunken bragging, however, the ransom pick-up nearly proves fatal for the Barkers. Having gotten back in Ma's good graces by strangling Doc's traitorous girlfriend, Amaryllis (Alyssa Milano), Karpis bids his co-conspirators adieu and heads for Canada. The Barkers murder Dunlop in retaliation for his drunken slip, and then slay a plastic surgeon who disfigured Doc instead of disguising him. In Chicago, the G-men finally apprehend Lloyd and Doc. Down South, Ma and Freddie Barker go down in a hail of bullets.

This noisy crime spree has several strikes against it. Revisiting such a familiar tale without a fresh approach to the material seems somewhat pointless. The lame-brain script doesn't position the family's escalating violence in a compelling narrative fashion--one robbery trips on the heels of another without any rise in tension. More damaging than this generic gangster flick's impersonality and monotonous brutality, though, is the contrived performance by Russell, who begins by impersonating Ma Joad before ending up as Mae West with a twist of Dixie. In addition to her total failure to build a credible characterization, the other cast members appear to be drama students gussied up for a gangster sitcom audition. With this lightweight cast, the Barker saga's story value plummets to zero.

For fans of mindless shoot-'em-ups and devotees of populist criminals, PUBLIC ENEMIES goes rat-a-tat with sufficient energy. But anyone expecting a revisionist FBI fable, an entertainingly lurid biopic, or a smashingly directed crime thriller should look elsewhere. (Graphic violence, extreme profanity, nudity, substance abuse, adult situations, sexual situations.) leave a comment

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