Public Enemies is one part classic-mobster movie, one part innovation. On my part, I wasn’t all that impressed.
The movie tells the tale of famous 30’s bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), his friends, his girl (Marion Cotillard), and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI agent determined to catch him.
In what may have been an attempt to innovate from the standards of the gangster genre, at times the film is shot in a style that looks like a documentary. It works well when the media are actually involved in the plot, but when used on an action scene, the result was a bit uncomfortable to watch on the big screen. I ended up feeling a bit seasick and unable to really focus on what was going on. I did enjoy, however, the soundtrack to the film which mixed music of the period with more contemporary music which added a punchiness to the robbery and chase scenes.
Public Enemies was just messy in the middle. The beginning and the end were very well done—intense and interesting. But somewhere in the middle I started to wish that Purvis would either catch Dillinger or just give up. I don’t think a movie about a criminal on the run should evoke that level of apathy, especially not in the middle of hot pursuit. The midsection of the movie definitely could have used some trimming and some tightening.
I’ve often wondered what real mobsters would have thought of movies portraying them. One of my favorite moments in the movie was watching John Dillinger watching Manhattan Melodramastarring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. The subtle changes in his facial expression was really well acted and a visually intriguing scene.
The visual got me thinking, though, that while Public Enemies does have a central character who is complex and fun to watch, a great romance with his girl, and a compelling plot, it’s missing something that the old-school gangster movies had. There’s just no spark in Public Enemies. Technically, it’s a good movie. Well acted, well filmed. But there wasn’t any snappy repartee that made the original gangster movies so enjoyable. Frankly, the only thing that really snapped in this movie was the Tommy Guns.
I was surprised by how little this movie dazzled, considering the all-star cast. Johnny Depp is fantastic as Dillinger. He brings his trademark odd-charisma to the role and it works well as a “hardened criminal” who is also loyal to his friends and to his girl. Marion Cotillard is sensational as Dillinger’s girlfriend, Billie Frechette. Her performance when worried about Dillinger or when the cops are interrogating Frechette is pitch-perfect. Billy Crudup gives a great character performance as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Christian Bale is less than interesting as Agent Melvin Purvis. Other stars include Lili Taylor, Channing Tatum, and Leelee Sobieski. But, even the best actors can’t save a movie that needs better dialogue and more editing.
Public Enemies was written by Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, and Ann Biderman, and directed by Michael Mann. Rated R for gangster violence and language, it runs 140 minutes.
If you enjoyed Public Enemies, why not rent Manhattan Melodrama (1934). The film stars Clark Gable and William Powell as orphaned-friends who find themselves on opposite ends of the law as one pursues a life of crime, the other the life of a politician. Further complications arise when they pursue the same girl (Myrna Loy).
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