Public Enemies


Reviewed by: Stephen Carty

Public Enemies
"A challenging and competent antidote to the hordes of brainless blockbusters out there."

With a Michael Mann movie you expect a few things. Fast, trendy cars. A hip, thudding soundtrack. An urban cityscape illuminated at night (sometimes with foxes). A shed-load of blue lighting. However, with his mostly factual adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s book of the same name, he paints a canvas of Tommy guns, gentleman hats and pencil-thin moustaches. In short, just imagine The Untouchables crossed with The Insider.

Don’t worry, though, Mann fans, aside from the usual slavish attention to detail (such as many scenes being shot in the actual locations where events took place 75 years earlier), there are plenty of his trademarks. We get the familiar notion of impossible, just-out-of-reach love. We get the underlying undercurrent that while crime is fun and pays, it’s ultimately deadly. Then there’s hyper-real HD camera work that gives us a faux-documentary picture so crisp you can see the actor’s pores (thank God, Depp and Bale have flawless complexions).

Copy picture

Its Thirties depression-era America, and John Dillinger (Depp) has become a heroic media sensation by robbing banks. Viewed by the public as a Robin Hood-type and by the law as a dangerous villain who needs stopping at all costs, FBI head J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) charges agent Melvin Purvis (Bale) with tracking him down. Though Dillinger seems free and clear after many of his gang are killed, he is lured back to get sweetheart Billie Frenchette (Marion Cotillard).

While this is a challenging and competent antidote to the hordes of brainless blockbusters out there, it’s ultimately not up there with the stylish director’s best. More successful at recreating the period than it is at drawing us into the characters, Public Enemies will lose many a viewer with a slow opening section, while even more patient movie-goers will need a few views to take it all in.

Additionally, it lacks a key dynamic that Mann's crime thrillers always deliver - epic enemies with a kinship, where the pursuer gets into the mindset of his quarry. In Manhunter we had broken agent Will Graham and his imprisoned-torturer Hannibal Lecktor. In Heat there was obsessive cop Vincent Hannah and his equally perfectionist nemesis Neil McCauley. Hell, in Collateral there was even an interesting rivalry between average-Joe cabbie Max and Zen-like Hitman Vincent.

But sadly, the conflict between Depp's cocksure outlaw and Bale's strait-laced lawman never engages in the same way and their match-up boils down to a few steely glares. It's not that either actor is terrible - far from it. While Bale is given little to work with as a kind of humourless cypher, Depp is overpowering as our anti-hero and never 'becomes' Dillinger in the same way Will Smith did with Ali. Despite a good performance, it's always Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger.

You could argue that Mann intentionally keeps us from getting under his lead's skin to maintain a surrounding air of enigma, but this also extends to those around him. Crudup’s creepy J Edgar Hoover, Stephen Graham’s maniacal Baby Face Nelson, Steven Dorf’s loyal Homer - they're all drawn very thinly.

Still, there are moments of brilliance as you'd expect. Interestingly, the two most memorable sequences are low-key ones that don't involve foot-races or the deafening spray of bullets. In the first we see Dillinger sitting in a cinema while a giant image of his face appears on screen and the public service announces that "he could be the man sat next to you!” In the other, we get an eerily surreal and beautiful scene where Depp walks into police headquarters and wanders round the empty Dillinger squad room completely undetected. Just superb.

Sure to divide audiences, Public Enemies might not be for your average film fan, but the more discerning movie viewer will see it as a refreshing change of pace to the usual lowbrow summer CGI fluff. Still, not the vintage Michael Mann we were hoping for...

Reviewed on: 13 Jul 2009
Share this with others on...
Public Enemies packshot
The FBI is charged with hunting down Public Enemy No. 1: John Dillinger.
Amazon link

Read more Public Enemies reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Michael Mann

Writer: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Graham, David Wenham, James Russo, Billy Crudup, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, Channing Tatum

Year: 2009

Runtime: 140 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Search database:

Related Articles:

Know your Enemies

If you like this, try: