movie film review | chris tookey

Public Enemies

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  Public Enemies Review
Tookey's Rating
2 /10
Average Rating
6.03 /10
Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Full Cast >

Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman Based on the book by Bryan Burrough

Released: 2009
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 130

Criminally poor.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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There have been worse movies released during 2009, but Public Enemies must rank as the biggest disappointment.

This is, after all, the latest thriller by Michael Mann, who brought us Heat, The Insider and Collateral. Who better to turn his hand to bringing the old-fashioned gangster movie into the 21st century?
Set during the 30s heyday of Chicago crime, Public Enemies tells what should have been an exciting story – how the newly formed FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) set its best agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the killer of Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), to hunt down the USA’s public enemy number 1 and his sidekicks.

That’s John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, pictured), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Homer van Meter (Stephen Dorff), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi), not to mention Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

It’s quite a line-up, n’est-ce-pas?

There is no actor more charismatic than Johnny Depp, and he turns on the glamour as Dillinger. He looks great in a brown fedora, he’s extremely cool as he walks unnoticed into a Chicago police station and chats calmly to the detectives who are trying to track him down. He is every inch the romantic lead as he romances hat-check girl Billie Frechette with the promise of a racier life: “I like baseball, good clothes, fast cars and you. What else do you need to know?”

Unfortunately, he’s not much more than a pretty face. The real Dillinger had a reputation as a Robin Hood, but here he’s just a ruthless, bank-robbing, jail-busting criminal with automatic weapons and deeply unattractive friends. We never get inside his head, and he never seems to have any inner conflict.

Mann dedicates himself to making Dillinger look cool, and that’s the problem with the whole movie. It looks the business, but has no depth, nothing to say, no new angle. It just feels like a homage to older, better films, like Scarface, White Heat and, indeed, the 1945 film Dillinger.

Anyone who knows their gangster history will recall that Purvis eventually had Dillinger shot outside a cinema; but Mann seems little interested in the potentially fascinating process of tracking down the criminal. Purvis is an inscrutable cipher throughout, and he’s played with boring monotony by Christian Bale. There’s none of the intense, mythic rivalry between him and Depp that lay between De Niro and Pacino in Heat.

It’s an opportunity wasted, to put it mildly – as is the casting of Crudup as Hoover. Crudup is the liveliest element in the first half-hour, but his role fizzles out, as does the subplot about the troubled, cash-strapped, early days of the FBI.

There’s another subplot, in which organised crime boss Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) gets tired of Dillinger’s exploits and blames him for the growth of the FBI and draconian crime legislation. But here, too, there’s a feeling that any insights have been left on the cutting-room floor.

The screenplay feels as though it is based on a lengthy book that has been inadequately digested (it’s by Bryan Burrough). Too many elements have been sacrificed to the central love story – which, unfortunately, fails to catch fire.

Marion Cotillard proved in her Oscar-winning role as Piaf that she can be an actress of soul-searing power, but here she’s given nothing to work with. She’s not conflicted between the law and the man she loves. Give her a nice coat to wear, and she’s happy to be just another gangster’s moll.

Mann has been able to attract some useful actors to play Dillinger’s sidekicks, but the woefully superficial screenplay by Ronan Bennett, Mann and Ann Biderman gives them virtually nothing to say.
Stephen Graham plays Baby Face Nelson as an out-and-out psychopath, but Depp’s Dillinger scarcely seems to notice. You’d think there might be some suspicion, rivalry or hatred between them, but nothing comes across. Like every other relationship in the movie, it’s so poorly written that the actors never have a chance.

On a technical note, the diction and sound quality are as bad as I have heard in any mainstream Hollywood film. Many of the scenes badly need to be revoiced.

The movie is certainly full of incident. It begins with a jail break, the killing of Pretty Boy Floyd and a bank robbery, and proceeds through a multitude of shoot-outs and casual acts of violence. But it all seems weightless and uninvolving. At the end of the first hour, I was still waiting for the movie to start, and to a large extent it never does.

It’s hard to know what attracted Mann to this subject, beyond an affection for glamorous gangster movies that have gone before. There are echoes of Bonnie and Clyde in the love affair between Dillinger and Plechette, but we know too little about them to see them as much more than a good-looking couple.

In the current financial crisis, bankers have about as low a status as they have ever had, and Mann showed in The Insider that he can be pretty beady-eyed about financial greed; but curiously Mann doesn’t bother to draw any modern parallels, or build up Dillinger as an anti-capitalist. He’s just an avaricious bank-robber who’s quite happy to hit innocent people in the face or use them as hostages.

The film is long at 130 minutes, and because it’s so uninvolving it feels even longer. There is a vast gallery of characters, but this makes for confusion as hardly any of them are developed. They’re not even entertaining as caricatures.

Mann has always been a cold, humourless director, too concerned with style over substance, glitz over ethical content. He has also had a tendency to allow his films to spread beyond their natural length, most notoriously in Miami Vice. All these faults and more are present in Public Enemies.

A few directors are the darlings of critics, and Mann is one of them. I’ve never subscribed to the auteur theory, which leaves me at liberty to point out that good directors sometimes make bad films. And Public Enemies is one of the dreariest films ever made by a talented director.

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