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Public Enemies Review

By Joe Lozito

Gangland Style


You have to say one thing about Michael Mann, he's consistent. The director of "Thief", "Collateral" and "Miami Vice" always approaches his films with exceptional style, typically at the expense of substance. With "Public Enemies", his John Dillinger biopic, Mr. Mann again displays his love for the extreme close-up, deep focus, and really, really loud gunshots. He also continues to have no truck with an establishing shot. And, as he did in his De Niro-Pacino epic "Heat", he again takes two powerhouse actors (Johnny Depp and Christian Bale) and teasingly drops them in a film in which they barely meet. It could be argued, in fact, that Depp and Bale are the De Niro and Pacino of their generation (which one's which? Discuss!), but that's a different story.

In "Enemies", Mr. Depp gets the more flashy role as Dillinger. One of those "gentleman gangsters", he specializes in robbing banks but he never steals from the customers, only from the safe (uh, John, whose money do you think's in there?). After he takes a woman hostage, he'll give her the coat off his back if she's cold. Mr. Depp could play this role in his sleep: charisma, knowing smirk and slightly odd accent - all firmly in place. Though he doesn't possess the physical heft of the legendary criminal, he more than makes up for it in star power.

Mr. Bale has the less enviable role of straight man. He plays Melvin Purvis, Eliot Ness to Dillinger's Al Capone. But Purvis's men are no Untouchables. With the fledging FBI yet to get off the ground (headed by Billy Crudup as a pitch-perfect J. Edgar Hoover), Purvis is stuck with untrained "G-men" who make it clear why Dillinger was able to run free all those years.

When the film opens, it's 1933, and Dillinger and his gang are already at the top of their game; they can knock over a bank in two minutes flat. During one celebratory meal, Dillinger spies a young brunette at a table. She turns out to be Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard from "La Vie en Rose"), a coat check girl who becomes Dillinger's lady love. Erring on the side of myth-making, the film ignores Dillinger's first marriage, as well as his other girlfriends, and paints Billie and John as two lost souls clinging to each other in an unfair world. It doesn't quite work. Ms. Cotillard and Mr. Depp provide the requisite chemistry, but we never find out why these two were meant for each other (aside from the initial physical attraction). Likewise, we learn little about why Dillinger turned to a life of crime in the first place (he's given one great monologue about his upbringing) or how he formed his gang of (faceless, interchangeable) cronies. Mr. Bale's Purvis, meanwhile, is at best a cipher.

As is often the case, Mr. Mann seems less interested in what makes his characters tick and more interested in creating atmosphere. And there he succeeds greatly. "Enemies" feels more like a snapshot of this moment in history than a biography. Mr. Mann's integration of organized crime and the early days of the FBI shows promise, as does the knowing nod at "enhanced interrogation" and the Depression era setting. But it's all kept at arm's length. The weak script - which Mr. Mann co-wrote with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman - plays fast and loose with certain events and makes a Hail Mary attempt at poetry in the final moments. But nothing in the film has earned that finale. It's a pity, since the visual storytelling is masterful - as you'd expect, there's a lot of Tommy Guns and an excellent car chase sequence. The deeply saturated hi-def cinematography and Mr. Mann's own unique camerawork keep the film riveting for its two-plus hour running time.

There have been several Dillinger biopics over the last century (starring everyone from Lawrence Tierney to Mark Harmon) and there is certainly an interesting story to be told here, but this may not be it. I often wish Michael Mann spent as much time crafting a script has he does a camera shot, but I'd never begrudge this talented director his style. That would be the real crime.

What did you think?

Movie title Public Enemies
Release year 2009
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Though it provides no insight into its subject, Michael Mann's John Dillinger biopic is still an engrossing period piece, thanks largely to the director's sure hand and signature style.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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