A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Dillinger" is the film, we may speculate, that John Milius was born to make: violent, tough, filled with guns and blood. Milius is the hot young screenwriter whose credits to date include "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean." And if we may believe published reports, his contracts all specify that he be provided with a rare and expensive rifle in addition to his salary. As a gimmick, it's a good one; Hollywood executives are impressed sometimes by eccentricity (particularly if it is showy and meant to advertise potential genius), and the bearlike Milius seems to spook them. I'd suspected, though, that the rifles were for publicity. Apparently not, "Dillinger" is a movie written and directed by a man with a thing for guns.
Consider, for example, the Milius version of the Melvin Purvis raid on Little Bohemia lodge. Accounts in Purvis' "American Agent" and other books leave no doubt that it was a fiasco. But was it a farce? Milius gives us a full 10 minutes of gunplay. Special agents topple seemingly by the dozens. Were there enough G-men in the Midwest to provide spare bodies for such a massacre? No, it looks more like Milius went crackers on the scene and hauled in extras by the half-dozen so that he could kill them with those clever little exploding blood capsules. If the massacre at the end of Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" was special-effects technology in the service of art, here we have mere over-achievement.
The Milius obsession does provide us with some good moments, though. As Purvis, he has cast Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion in "The Last Picture Show"), and it is a fine, if unexpected, choice. Johnson is slow and easy and mean, and vows to take Dillinger himself. Before going into battle, he has a ritual: An assistant agent hands him his weapon and lights his cigar. This behavior is not recorded in accounts of Purvis, but it provides an interesting piece of business offering clues to his motivation.
Dillinger, on the other hand, comes off as a fairly decent man who wore the mantle of folk hero with more modesty than Bonnie and Clyde (whose adventures he follows in the newspapers). He brags sometimes, but with reason, and he's not a sadistic killer. He's a professional. He has killers in his gang, however, and is enraged when Baby Face Nelson gets trigger-happy.