Public Enemies

2009-09-04 12:30
 
Public Enemies

What it’s about:

In 1933, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his band of gangsters robbed a series of banks with a flair that won over the Depression-ravaged public. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), determined to have his newly-formed FBI bring down the notorious criminal, puts his best agent on the job, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).

What we thought:

The problem with movies set in the 30s is that too often they come out looking like caricatures. Flamboyantly-named gangsters, speakeasies and jazz clubs, wisecracking broads and pin-striped mafia dons usually combine to create a world only slightly less comical than Bugsy Malone.

Public Enemies isn’t that movie. It’s a Michael Mann picture through and through, which means likeable baddies, a constant struggle between legality and morality, and lashings of realistic violence. In fact, it can be seen more as a companion piece to Mann’s own magnum opus Heat than any other cops and robbers flick.

John Dillinger was a bank robber whose legend eclipsed even the audacity of his exploits. Through intense charisma, a tendency to brag and a taste for stunts like sauntering into police stations, he captured the public imagination as a debonair figure in the mould of Robin Hood. His brazen capers so infuriated J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI that he earned himself the title of 'Public Enemy No. 1'. Apparently Leonardo diCaprio was slated to play the role of Dillinger, but it’s difficult to see how anyone but Johnny Depp can make a pencil moustache look so cool.

The story is little more than a prolonged chase sequence. Christian Bale plays G-man Melvin Purvis, tasked with bringing down Dillinger and his ruthless band of gangsters. The engine that drives the story forward is the relationship between these two men – each at the top of his chosen profession, and doggedly determined to stop at nothing in their quests. That’s where the film echoes the theme of Heat, being the interplay between heist artist Robert de Niro and cop Al Pacino, and it serves well as the armature of the story. Dillinger’s love affair with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) brings a vulnerability to Depp’s smart-aleck bad guy, and makes him into such a likeable rogue that you almost forget the body count that his gang racked up.

That’s not to say that Mann is shy of violence: he brings his own particular no-nonsense approach to the heists that are reminiscent of the infamous armored van robbery in Heat. The guns are tooth-rattlingly loud. The bullets impact with flesh viscerally. And if someone needs to get shot in the face, Mann isn’t afraid of showing it.

The result is a movie that finds itself stuck between styles. It lacks the exploration of the characters’ personal lives that led to the slow-burning intensity of Mann’s best work, Heat and The Insider, while deviating from the action enough that it loses the kinetic impetus of Collateral and Miami Vice. The performances are a treat: the devilishly handsome Depp was created for this sort of role, and there’s a crackling electricity between him and the adorable Cotillard, who wowed the world as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.

Even Christian Bale’s robotic performance (who seems to get more weirdly mechanical with each film he does) seems to fit the role. The outcome is a good film that, perhaps through too much focus on historical accuracy rather than spinning a good story, falls just a few notches short of being great.


Michael Mann plots the FBI’s manhunt for notorious Depression-era gangster John Dillinger, played by Johnny Depp.

preshen govender 2009/09/08 9:31 AM
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Johnny was great but I am getting sick of seeing Christian Bale face all the time in every movie, can’t Hollywood get some new freaking actors.
Morgan 2009/10/03 11:20 AM
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Proof again that, along with the Coen Brothers, Michael Mann is one of the overrated directors in Hollywood. A lot of people staring, camera close-up, into each other's eyes, but all signifying nothing. Mann's funnest movie was 'Last of the Mohicans', but it's been all posing since then. Decent movie this, but not nearly as profound or insightful as some would make out.
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