Public Enemies

© 2009 Ray Wong


Based on best-selling book by Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies chronicles the FBI's war on crime during the Depression era, focusing on public enemy number one: bank robber John Dillinger.

p1John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a notorious bank robber during the Depression. Together with outlaws such as sociopathic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Dillinger and his men are almost unstoppable. They break out of jails, rob banks with lightning speed, and live openly in corrupt Chicago where the Feds can't touch them. Soon, the FBI headed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) declares Dillinger as their number one public enemy, and Hoover appointed his top agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to hunt down Dillinger.

p2The cat and mouse chases pit Purvis against Dillinger and his men, but in every turn, Dillinger is always one step ahead of Purvis, either outwitting or outgunning the FBI. Frustrated, Purvis asks Hoover to outfit his unit with the hardest, most ruthless agents. Still, even when captured, Dillinger finds a way to escape and outsmart the authorities.

p3Eventually Purvis finds Dillinger's Achilles' heel: the bank robber has fallen in love with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat-check girl in Chicago. Pushed into a corner and desperate to find a way out, Dillinger decides to do one last heist so he and Billie can finally leave everything behind.

p4Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) is often amazing in his work. As John Dillinger, Depp plays the infamous robber with charisma and suavity. He is both cool and intense, giving us a three-dimensional character who is a hard criminal with a good heart. Depp often is capable of instilling humor in even the darkest characters he plays, and Dillinger is no exception.

p5Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation) can do intense and stoic in his sleep. He does a good job with the character of Melvin Purvis, sort of the Clark Gable of FBI. However, it would be nice to see Mr. Bale to at least crack a smile once in a while. As good as he is, Bale seems to have pigeonholed himself in these sorts of joyless characters; perhaps it's time for him to branch out a bit. Billy Crudup (Watchmen), meanwhile, has some fun and captures the spirit of the famed J. Edgar Hoover.

p6Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) doesn't have a lot to do playing Dillinger's girlfriend. Sure, she's dashing and spunky and tender and all that, and we can see why Dillinger would be smitten with her, but her character doesn't have too much depth below the surface, and she serves more as a pawn than a key character in the story. The supporting cast does their job well, including David Wenham (Australia) as Harry "Pete" Pierpont, Rory Cochrane (A Scanner Darkly) as Agent Baum, Channing Tatum (G.I. Joe) as Pretty Boy Floyd, and particularly Stephen Graham (Doghouse) as hateful Baby Face Nelson.

p7The screenplay is a collaborative effort by Ronan Bennett (Lucky Break), Michael Mann (Miami Vice) and Ann Biderman (Primal Fear). For the most part, the story is taut and streamlined to keep us on our toes. The dialogue has an hard edge to it, and the plot takes us into the world of crime in the early 1930s. Still, the screenplay is inconsistent, and it often drags between action scenes. The relationships between these characters also feel underdeveloped. Personally I don't get it why Billie Flechette would so willingly follow Dillinger and do his bidding. I'm not convinced that a nice girl like her would risk everything for a hardcore criminal.

p8While the writing is inconsistent (a clear sign that it may have been written by committee), the direction by Michael Mann (Miami Vice) feels even more so. There's a period look to the film that is quite captivating, but Mann decides to shoot the whole film digitally, and at times resorts to a video look to heighten the "realtime" feel of the action. The result is more distracting than engaging. That also gives the film an uneven look. The digital video style appears cheap and unpolished, and it doesn't fit the time period and overall feel of the period piece.

That said, Mann has staged some of the most exciting gun fights and prison breaks. Particularly the showdown at a Wisconsin lodge. And the final fate of Dillinger is handled poetically, albeit somewhat pretentious and drawn out.

Public Enemies is neither bad or great. It's decent entertainment. But it's weak as a biopic of Dillinger, and it's weak as an action-drama about one of the most infamous American bank robbers in modern history. I just don't think Mann's version is quite there yet, and the public may agree with me.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup, James Russo, Marion Cotillard, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Rory Cochrane
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman (based on Byran Burrough's book)
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for language and gangster violence
Running Time: 140 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 6
Production – 8

Total – 6.8 out of 10

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