Review of Public Enemies


"Public Enemies" Makes Friends with Audiences

-- Rating: R (violence and language)
Length: 140 minutes
Release date: July 1, 2009
Directed by: Michael Mann
Genre: Crime, Drama, and Biography

Director Michael Mann ("Miami Vice") is known for being a visionary in the world of film. His "Public Enemies" was shot in digital high definition, and looks crisp and artistic. There are moments of abstract wonder that are quickly followed by intense realism. Mann's techniques and use of this film medium also lend a bright intensity to nighttime scenes that have not been seen in prior films.

The film captures a short period in the life of gangster John Dillinger, played by a low key Johnny Depp. The time span of the movie covers the events of a prison break and goes up to Dillinger's death in a hail of bullets outside a theater in Chicago. Like many films that depict Depression era outlaws, there is a sense of romanticism about the rogue characters. Among the frantic and violent outbursts that pepper the film, there is a human element in the lives of the men depicted. This newer take on the gangster genre seeks to give one a feeling that all of the characters have grey areas; they are similar in their actions and personalities instead of being vastly different from one another.

The film opens with a meticulously executed prison break scene, complete with an intense view of the blue sky that mimics a vast and wondrous cathedral dome ceiling. Dillinger and Red (Jason Clarke) appear as small distant objects in contrast, as they make their way to a huge prison. Once inside, the shots are close up, until once again the camera backs away for a dramatic shot of Dillinger as he fires his machine gun, allowing his gang to make their getaway. Along the way, in a dramatic scene, they lose Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). The characters of Dillinger's comrades are barely developed and for the most part in the film are merely tools in his crime syndicate. The film gives a sense that he is one man against the world. The narrative is slow burning, and it takes some time before the action heats up.

Even though it is a fictionalized account of a difficult time, the film has the seriousness required to give the audience a feeling of reality. The costumes are also outstanding. Johnny Depp looks downright handsome as the devilish Dillinger, complete with period suit and fedora. His performance creeps up on the audience as he transitions from periods of calm dialogue to bursts of violence, all depicted in a pictorial fashion. The setting is dark and moody, with very few moments of happiness. The scene in which Dillinger cracks a smile at a Clark Gable gangster film is one of the few times that Dillinger has such a reaction.

In addition to the main antagonist, Dillinger, the film's story also deals with his nemesis, FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The FBI, just getting started in those days, is under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Hoover is not amused by the antics of Dillinger, but feels that he is a problem for the individual states to deal with. However, the crime network is soon under federal jurisdiction, and the fledgling federal law enforcement agency pits barely trained agents against veteran, hardened criminals. Eventually, attrition gets the best of the criminals, and they are picked off one by one. The FBI gets smarter and pulls a proverbial noose around Dillinger's neck. Christian Bale comes off as a very tired and often frustrated G-man, and his story is separate from Dillinger's for the most part. He and Depp have one scene together, when Dillinger is captured and imprisoned. They play well off each other, without one upstaging the other.

The action reaches a high point during the second half of the film. One of the really intriguing things that audience begins to notice is how Dillinger crafts an image for the public-his face as public enemy number one is really nothing more than fiction-a way to increase his folk legend.

At times, between his gangster exploits, Dillinger is involved in a relationship with a coat check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). She is ignorant of his crimes at first, and provides a stable grounding force for a man who seems to be getting drunk on his own fame, even as the walls come falling down around him. The romance actually works quite well in this film, and both actors shine.
In summing up, "Public Enemies" is an artistic achievement in film, and very much one for Mann to be proud of. He met his goal to make a gangster flick unlike one that had ever been made.

Rating: 4 of 5