REVIEW: Public Enemies [2009]

“Bye-bye blackbird”

There’s this thing called clout that allows certain Hollywood types to be able to get people like Shawn Hatosy and Leelee Sobieski in their films for five-minute throwaway roles. It also gets them the ability to have carte blanche on a script that others may not. I think Michael Mann is one of the good ones; even subpar fare like Miami Vice still seemed to contain what could have been a good film, hidden inside, just a few more edits away. So, when trailers for Public Enemies started dropping, with two stalwarts in Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, I was ready for a return to form. Unfortunately that is not what showed on screen. Instead, Mann once more seems to have overexerted himself by producing a bloated product with too many dead areas, virtually filming a vanity piece for Depp rather than a truly captivating tale. Comparisons to Ridley Scott’s American Gangster kept entering the back of my mind, both derivative tales that try to be more than they are—perfectly adequate does not a classic make. John Dillinger is definitely an intriguing figure, a bank robber with a heart—sort of—but with a runtime over two hours, how often can we watch him rob a bank, risk his life, and get captured? The repetition becomes too much.

It’s a shame because, once again, there is a lot to like here. I feel Mann needs to step back and reevaluate his movies, taking a fresh look and seeing how he can excise all the superfluous fluff preventing the work from truly shining. The opening scene is fantastic. You assume it will begin with a bang, but in a bank, not at a jail during broad daylight. With the tone set and a rapid pace, I was ready for a thrill ride. However, the following scenes soon brought the speed down to the level it would stay for the duration. His chauvinism and unceasing confidence win over thieves everywhere as well as the heart of Frechette; it sadly did not win me over. Depp is great as Dillinger; the question becomes whether the character itself deserved such an epic tale. Giovanni Ribisi’s crook arrives early on with a proposition of a big score for retirement, why must we have over an hour of filler before finally getting back to that plan? Maybe Mann felt we needed to see Dillinger’s hubristic ways slowly destroy him, but starting the film without backstory and throwing us directly into the action is a measured choice, we as an audience expect to see his fall, we have no allusions that he will survive and ride out into the sunset. Starting so late in his “career” tells us the end is nigh, there is no need to prolong it.

And then there is Bale. Again, like Scott’s longwinded opus of crime with Russell Crowe’s detective role, while the character of Melvin Purvis may be the more interesting of the two, he is second fiddle at every turn. We all know the kind of badass Dillinger was, as well as his demise, but what about Purvis’ conflicted mind when it came to killing rather than catching the criminals he hunted; what about the events that would ultimately lead to his own suicide? Bale is pushed to the background, utilized only as a villain to Depp’s actual villainy. His shining moment comes with his ending Pretty Boy Floyd’s, (I thought that was Channing Tatum, and it is), reign of crime—the first scene with him—a moment with absolutely nothing to do with Dillinger. The moments with he and Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover fall flat, touching upon the bureaucracy that was letting these miscreants run free on the streets, but never approached the intrigue that the bad guys had. The jailbirds are just fun to watch as well as being a who’s who of familiar faces. Even Stephen Dorff came out of obscurity to be involved. And, actually, he was pretty entertaining.

I guess my main gripe is in the title—Public Enemies. Well, where are the stories of everyone else? Okay, Floyd and Baby Face Nelson are included, but to what end? The first is shown only at his death and the other only as a loose cannon shooting anything in his path, (although I did enjoy Stephen Graham while eating dinner and being questioned in his hotel room). Mann should have called the film Dillinger and just made it into a biopic rather than pretending it was this huge crime drama about America’s most wanted during the Great Depression. The film is at its best when Depp is on screen, especially opposite the wonderful Marion Cotillard who shows what got her the Oscar in 2008. It may be a thankless role, playing the waif, but she instills in Frechette strength of character, a longing for honesty even though she has involved herself with a bank robber. Depp shines in his relationships with cohorts and friends, never wanting to let any of them down … ever. Right from the start we see this, we see his eyes once a member of the jailbreak takes it upon himself to bludgeon a guard. There was not supposed to be any bloodshed and that incident ultimately leads to a friend’s death, something unacceptable to him.

Amidst the long-windedness and repetitive story structure lie some pretty impressive art direction and an aesthetic that portrays the 1930s to perfection. It also boasts a successful turn from Depp, showing the man beneath the legend. His performance shows the notoriety he sought—it wasn’t about killing or the rush of danger—he just really loved the spotlight of celebrity. His image was what mattered most, to the point where he allowed customers at the banks he robbed to keep their money. While not anywhere near a Robin Hood figure, he kept his spoils for himself; there really wasn’t any malice in Dillinger, unless it was towards the police shooting bullets his way. Mann did a great job showing how America took to this man, not a murderer, but a showman, watching it all play out with wonderment rather than fear. Scenes of him holding a press conference upon his capture and seeing the awe in Emilie de Ravin’s face when she is taken hostage express the glamour I believe Mann strived for. It’s just a shame that the story surrounding that image was so dull to sit through otherwise.

Public Enemies 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette and Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Universal Pictures’ Public Enemies.
[2] Christian Bale stars in Universal Pictures’ Public Enemies.


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