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Public Enemies (2009) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 08 July 2009
Image"I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars...and you. What else do you need to know?"
John Dillinger (Johnny Depp)

I’m not going to lie. I never thought robbing banks would be so boring. When I heard that Michael Mann (director of Miami Vice, Collateral, and the classic crime drama Heat) was going to be making a film about infamous criminal John Dillinger, with perpetual chameleon Johnny Depp in the role, I was psyched. When I heard that Christian Bale would be playing Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who hunted Dillinger, I was ecstatic. Sure, the footage looked a little rough, due to the choice of shooting on digital cameras, but what the hell, there’s no way it could really be bad.

As mentioned, Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, one of the most notorious bank robbers in the history of the United States. As the film opens, he breaks his gang out of jail, and they proceed to terrorize the Chicago area. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) puts his top man, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), on the case. Purvis begins a systematic search for Dillinger, but Dillinger seems too fast for him. That is, until Dillinger meets Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and loses his focus. On paper, Public Enemies sounds practically perfect. One of the world’s greatest action directors helming two of the world’s leading method actors and a recent Oscar winner. Seems like a total recipe for success. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t play out that way. For one thing, despite taking great pains to recreate every possible detail of the 1930’s, Mann decided to shoot the film with digital cameras. To say this is anachronistic is a massive understatement. I can understand the reasoning for it. Mann wants to put the audience right in the moment. And while at times the cinematography offers a sense of immediacy, it’s more of the behind the scenes type. In fact, I kept expecting a boom mic to drop into frame and for the camera to pan and show a guy holding a reflector and smoking a cigarette while a deep-voiced narrator exclaimed, “And here we are on the set of Public Enemies, the new Michael Mann extravaganza!” It’s tough to feel connected to the characters when you’re constantly reminded of how out of place the cinematography is.

The other problem is that even if the cinematography were of the period, the characters just aren’t that interesting. Depp’s performance is Dillinger is perhaps the most uninteresting of his recent career. He brings nothing to the role aside from a cocksure swagger. Marion Cotillard’s Billie matches him note for note, adoring lavish praise and worry on Dillinger, but little in the way of real character development. Bale does better as Purvis. Under considerable pressure to bring Dillinger in at any cost, Purvis has to bend his ideals as a lawmaker with the necessities of a long term, high profile investigation (a compromise that the real Purvis was apparently unable to bear. Of the supporting cast, Billy Crudup is a total scene stealer as J. Edgar Hoover.

There are some good scenes in the movie. When Purvis hunts down Pretty Boy Floyd, you can feel the tension and Purvis’ determination. And there’s a jailbreak sequence (not the opening) that really does make you feel like you’re right in the middle of the action. But the bank robbery sequences are frustratingly brief, and Dillinger’s reputation as modern day Robin Hood is only alluded to in one small exchange. The majority of the movie is frustratingly focused on the Dillinger/Frechette relationship, which is never developed beyond goo-goo eyes and Dillinger making bold statements. There are a few compelling scenes of Purvis and his men conducting their investigation (including one scene where they interrogate Frechette that is easily the best acting Cotillard brings to the movie), but just as the audience’s interest is piqued, Mann cuts back to Dillinger moping and pining for Frechette. It’s frustrating, but also mind-numbingly boring.

And finally there’s the repeated references to Heat. Just like that 90’s crime classic, this is a movie about two men, one devoted to crime, and the other devoted to the law. And just like Heat, the movie has only one scene where the two leads meet. But while the meeting between De Niro and Pacino felt like two titans squaring off, the meeting between Bale and Depp doesn’t have the same gravitas, even with Bale bringing his A game. Public Enemies is a whole lot like that one scene: Lofty expectations brought down to earth by poor execution. I don’t know what Mann is planning after this, but I think it’s time to change courses

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