Movie Review – Public Enemies

Well acted, yet emotionally shallow period film retelling the story of John Dillinger, bank robber extraordinaire. Michael Mann delivers pulse-raising action, yet cannot find the hook for the main characters to bring the audience into this story - making this relevant to modern audiences, either as a morality fable or a straight-up action film seems to have eluded the filmmaker this time around.


– Summary –

Director : Michael Mann
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Lang, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, David Wenham, Spencer Garrett, Christian Stolte, James Russo, Giovanni Ribisi, John Ortiz, Rory Cochrane, Carey Mulligan, John Michael Bolger, Matt Craven, Lili Taylor, Leelee Sobieski.
Approx Running Time : 2hr 19min
Synopsis: Tasked by the founder of the FBI to track down bank robber John Dillinger, Melvin Purvis uses new scientific methods to hunt the wanted fugitive and his gang.
What we think : Well acted, yet emotionally shallow period film retelling the story of John Dillinger, bank robber extraordinaire. Michael Mann delivers pulse-raising action, yet cannot find the hook for the main characters to bring the audience into this story – making this relevant to modern audiences, either as a morality fable or a straight-up action film seems to have eluded the filmmaker this time around.


Ahh, the good old gangster film. Dark coats, fedoras, tommy-guns and sharp-as-a-whip broads all speakin’ the lingo of 30’s America, mixed with the heady brew of violence and sex, usually makes up a fine cocktail of crime and runnin’ from the law. Bonnie & Clyde, perhaps the most famous of all films to glorify a pair of real-life criminals, was noted at the time for its then-shocking depiction of violence and raw sexuality, and is by most modern standards the benchmark for all films of the genre. The screen presence of Warren Beatty in that film, as Clyde Barrow, was searing to say the least, while Faye Dunaway ably backed him up as the sultry muse to his violent artistry. Capturing the era, the feeling of disassociation of the time, and the dusty, grimy humanity struggling to survive the wrenching heartache of Depression era America, director Arthur Penn nailed it perfectly. Michael Mann, delivering his own version of the crime film set during the Depression, and retelling key moments in the life of John Dillinger, brings Public Enemies close to that benchmark, yet falls short in the end. While the film often skirts greatness, with some terrific dialogue, Public Enemies feels too aloof and inaccessible for all, save viewers intimately familiar with the era.

Looking for someone to love… with a gun.

John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Tommy Carroll (Spencer Garret) are a trio of bank robbers in 19030’s America. As their crimes become more brazen, and Dillinger skips across state lines leaving the police effectively powerless, the head of what would become the FBI (known at the time as the Bureau of Investigation), J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) instigates the first ever War On Crime, with lead agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) heading up the task force. Purvis’s first order of business is to bring Dillinger and his gang to justice, using the Bureau’s new scientific methods of crime solving. Dillinger, meanwhile, seems to be oblivious to the peril he’s in, courting local Chicago waitress and singer Evelyn “Billie” Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and falling in love with her. As the net begins to close around Dillinger, and his world begins to fall apart, a showdown with Purvis and the Bureau G-men takes shape as each man becomes desperate for an outcome to their conflict.

Michael Mann’s love affair with the crime film continues unabated with Public Enemies, although instead of dealing with it in a modern sense, he returns to a time now long ago for a look into the seedy underbelly of United States history, with the legendary John Dillinger coming into focus. Here, Mann combines the gunplay and death of Heat with the verbal intrigue of Collateral, as well as the large scale casting of Miami Vice to bring the period of 30’s Chicago to brilliantly realized life. The leading cast members, Depp and Bale, with Cotillard as the doe-eyed love interest, do justice to their respective roles, although I think Bale brings more to his admittedly limited role of Purvis than Depp does as the effusive, charming Dillinger. The film isn’t without some pretty major faults, however. The cast can only do so much in the face of a definite lack of cohesion within the bulky, constrained timeframe of the setting, and the lack of audience involvement thanks to a sharply written, yet strangely aloof script.

You know, a few extra seconds and I could’ve actually got INTO the car…

Public Enemies wastes no time with explanatory dialogue or backstory set-up – Mann plunges us into the era and the characters and asks us to catch up or fall behind. Folks who go into this with a limited knowledge of the era, the characters or the social fabric of America at the time may find themselves a little lost throughout – characters aren’t introduced as much as they just arrive, do their thing, and depart. The massive cast, which also includes Giovanni Ribisi, David Wenham, James Russo, John Ortiz, Leelee Sobieski, Lili Taylor, Carey Mulligan, Stephen Dorff and Stephen Lang amongst the players in this piece, somehow become lost amongst the shadows and gunfire, as Mann tries to balance Depps magnetic performance with the smorgasbord of ideas and narrative side-plots on offer. I’m firmly in the camp that believes a quality film should never pander to the audience, never dumb itself down for those who may not “get it”, as such – and Mann typically delivers another film where he suffers no fools gladly, yet for all his bravado at helming such a behemoth of a film, Public Enemies doesn’t really allow even the most astute viewer much room to move.

Dillinger, being the focus of the piece, is written as some sort of legendary icon of the period, and depending on which biographical piece you read, this may or may not be true – he was iconic in terms of being a poster-boy for crime in Chicago and the US at the time, but whether Depps portrayal is accurate is a matter of some conjecture. Regardless, the script is bafflingly obtuse with the nitty-gritty of Dillinger’s personality – at one point, he’s a charismatic charmer and redoubtable scoundrel, and it’s hard to know if Dillinger is merely putting it on, or if he actually believed his own press in this regard. His relationship with Frechette, herself played ably by Marion Cotillard, seems counter-intuitive to the majority of Public Enemies’ narrative – Depp and Cotillard almost become tragic romantics, more like characters in a Mills & Boon novel, than a hardened criminal and his moll. The remainder of the film is typical Mann: hard edged and violent, the way it was in real life.

I don’t care what you say, I’m not wearing this stupid hat.

The secondary cast, such as Stephen Graham (best known as Tommy in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch) and Billy Crudup, as J Edgar Hoover, are given short thrift in otherwise excellent roles – Graham in particular gives the nasty Baby Face Nelson a vitriolic, evil persona, even if his grand total of screen time minutes could be counted on one hand. Crudup is little more than a catalyst for the “pursuit” element of the story, and his relationship with Bale’s Purvis is both interesting and underdeveloped. Hoover’s juggernaut of Federal policing could have been a more fascinating sub-plot to the film (perhaps at the expense of the Dillinger/Frechette relationship) and had Mann allowed this side of the story to develop, the film could have been a better crime film than romantic one. Bale’s Purvis is criminally underwritten; we know little about him except that he’s a crack shot, and his character doesn’t really develop outside of the capture of Dillinger focus. Why is he so driven, what’s his motivation, who is he really? We never find out, and as such, Bale’s characterization of him never goes anywhere. He’s a nothing character, when he should have been a major one.

I’m worried that there’s almost no women in this film…

Come to think of it, the same could be said for pretty much every character in the film, with the possible exception of Cotillard’s Frechette – the majority of the characters in Public Enemies have no back-story at all, no genuine heart behind their actions: Stephen Lang’s Texas lawman Charles Winstead, who, according to this film, heard the whispers of a dying Dillinger, is a hard nut, but no provision is made as to why this is so, nor is his character anything but a vague Clint Eastwood caricature – this might look cool, but it adds nothing to the story.

Where Public Enemies excels is in the look and feel of the period, and the action sequences. Production values on this film are excellent, with costuming, set design and cinematography add ensuring the look of the film replicates the depression-era styes and visuals we’ve come to know and love. Dante Spinotti, as DOP, does a superb job rendering the lighting on this film, and he’s not scared to give darkness and shadow free reign at times – a pivotal gun-battle late in the film features a great deal of incomprehensible darkness and shadow, reflective of the mood and character’s mental states at this point of the film. Spinotti also drapes the film in drab monotone when it suits the story, such as the daylight robberies and subsequent getaways, which is more a throwback to the old black-and-white newsreels of the day than a modern moviemaking technique. Yes, even though the characters may float through this film without getting their emotional hands dirty, the film itself is simply gorgeous to look at.

Did anybody grab the cash in all the ruckus?

In the end, Public Enemies is a beautifully rendered period film which does little to bring any sense of emotional catharsis, nor is it a straight-up action flick (which, I think, would have been a better option), nor is it a really decent look at the formation of the FBI: the film can’t decide what it wants to be, thus becoming not much about anything at all, really. Dillinger is portrayed as a flamboyant iconoclast, Bale’s Purvis might as well have been carved from granite for all his character bends and flexes within this narrative, and Cotillard shines in the darkness as the lost-soul Frechette – Michael Mann delivers a few knockout action sequences, but underwhelming character work and an overabundance of characters to follow make Public Enemies a little too inaccessible as a viewer. Casual viewers will probably be underwhelmed, but genuine cinephiles will appreciate the craft behind it all. Worth a look, if only for Depps delightful work as Dillinger.