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2009 gangster film, directed by Michael Mann, and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.

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3 ½ Stars: Criminally Stylish But a Mere Imprint Than a Portrait of the Notorious Bank Robber

  • Jul 5, 2009

Director Michael Mann’s “PUBLIC ENEMIES” is based on the conscientiously researched book by Bryan Burroughs that chronicles the epic manhunt for infamous bank robber John Dillinger. The movie is faithful to its source material, it offers nothing else but an abstract impression on the life of the notorious criminal and misses the mark in becoming an intimate docudrama. Set during the depression era; a period when outlaws like Dillinger were seen and envied as rebellious folk heroes for their disrespect for authority. Mann’s film documents the phenomenon and touches on this element, but it never truly exposes the why, how and what motivated this image of Dillinger.
Three years into the Great Depression, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his band of robbers (including Stephen Dorff, Jason Clarke and David Wenham) has made a reputation for themselves as the most wanted men in the America, robbing banks quickly and efficiently. Dillinger and his crew have caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, Watchmen) and calls in special agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to bring him to justice by any means necessary. Now operating mostly in Chicago, Dillinger becomes smitten by local girl Billie (Marion Cotillard) who herself becomes swept away by the crook‘s suave, charisma and promise of love and commitment. Dillinger hopes to keep a low profile but fate has dealt him a hand full of betrayals that puts him on the run from the swarming G-Men as well as putting his associates at risk…
Johnny Depp is enthralling in his role of John Dillinger; Depp becomes the epitome of cool, but sadly, Mann’s screenplay doesn’t match the actor’s charisma. Michael Mann is no stranger to the cops and robbers genre, and he has created his own cinematic style by shying away from the workings of customary storytelling armed with a lengthy screenplay and the magic of modern technology. Michael Mann shows Dillinger as seductive, suave and charismatic and while Depp has convincing appeal, Mann never goes into the reasons why he became such a celebrity. The direction merely touches upon the fact that Dillinger never robs the common folk, cares about what the public thinks (which is why he would never resort to kidnapping) and he releases his hostages after a getaway; But the how and the what is never brought into play. The film feels that it is a mere ‘taste’ of the life and times of John Dillinger while the viewer is given an overload of gunfights, dames, and cool camera work. The film becomes trapped in a murky aesthetic that the film is lost for a need for a contemplative deliberation on Dillinger’s life.

           Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in "Public Enemies."

                            Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis in "Public Enemies."
Michael Mann also misses the opportunity to expose the persuasive parallels between Dillinger and FBI agent Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale, The Dark Knight), the person handpicked to bring Dillinger to justice after his success in the apprehension of “pretty boy Floyd”. Both men became 'media sensations' during this period, for reasons different but in ways, also very similar. Bale is intense in his portrayal but lacks depth in his personality as a boy scout who is caught between doing whatever is necessary to bring a fugitive to justice and his distaste for the necessary savagery needed for the job. Dillinger on the other hand feels annoyed by his trigger-happy associates but he would not shy away from a confrontation. Dillinger was made indignant by his time in jail for robbing a small store, the man is a robber with grounds for his behavior; he wants to live the good life during this era of the Great Depression. Johnny Depp is definitely fit for his role as the infamous Dillinger who is just so full of life and wit complemented by his dashing personality as shown in his escape and the manner that he toured the police station. The film does show Dillinger as a gutsy, calculating character who is not afraid of risks. Billie (Marion Cotillard, Big Fish) is the woman who becomes attracted to his honesty and promises of undying love; Cotillard is convincing as the woman who captured Dillinger’s affections, she is simple and she exudes the type of woman one would be interested in marrying.

          Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis and Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in "Public Enemies."
The film does look gorgeous in the manner it is shot. The cinematography, costumes and set designs are reflective of this era. Mann does keep the camera close to the actors’ features in an attempt to cover the emotion within the scene. This is a nice approach but for the untrained movie watcher, they may see this as a mere display current HD technology by showing Bale’s and Depp’s imperfections. The night scenes are almost inky black, but it manages to show detail in the scenes. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s work may feel a little uneven on certain scenes but it was nonetheless good especially in the gunfights. The film may not be an action-packed affair but it does have its share of intense gun battles between Dillinger’s and Purvis’ crew. They are bloody and they look quite realistic in their choreography. It was nice to see old-fashioned Tommy Guns and semi-automatic rifles thrown into the mix although they become rather repetitive shadow plays after awhile.

          A scene in "Public Enemies."
What “Public Enemy” lacks is a balance for its characters, it never really gets into a mood that reflects a cerebral deliberation on the Dillinger character. All the movie teaches its audience is the fact that Dillinger was undone by his loyalty to friends, lovers and colleagues. He would never abandon them, even “Baby Face” Nelson whom he can barely tolerate and we all know what happens when someone keeps close relations. The film is hampered by tracking the romance between Dillinger and Billie, but they share very little ‘hot’ chemistry to justify their obsession for each other. Depp makes the most of his underwritten role and the script gives limited material to understand this anti-hero that Mann wants to bring into exposition. The script plays around with a moral code that it never fully develops, he is neither a man who gives to the poor nor a criminal mastermind, instead Dillinger is shown as a man with a legacy because of newsreels and headlines, much to the gangster’s amusement. It does throw an idea of the media’s tendency to sensationalize shady figures but again, it was abandoned abruptly. Mann was just so concerned in his anti-hero worship and romanticizing his character through his relationship with Billie that the viewer has no time to invest and be attached to the Dillinger persona.
“Public Enemies” could have been a lot more, and unfortunately it adds up to so little by the film’s end. Those who are familiar with Dillinger may be entertained and with Depp as the lead it would be a breeze. However, this is not a docudrama or a portrait about the life and times of Dillinger but rather an abstract impression that is not that satisfying. Folks who are looking for an intimate portrait may be disappointed. Visually, the film is impressive; gunfights are all cool and good. While this wasn’t a thrill ride full of compelling scenes, it is entertaining; although it is a little empty from a dramatic standpoint. It misses its potential as a thrilling crime drama but succeeds as a hero worship.
Recommended! [3 ½ Stars]
poster Johnny's got a gun... scene Bale and Depp Dillinger and his love, Billie

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May 20, 2011
Excellent review! This is one of my all time favorite Michael Mann and Johnny Depp films. It's a cinematic high wire act of amazing visual, stellar performances and a story that is just too good to resist. I love this film!! But... I also agree with you that this film can lack depth at some points but none the less it still is a virtuoso of a film.
May 20, 2011
Yeah. I wrote this review after I saw it in theaters but I have to admit the film grew on me after I saw it again on dvd. No new reviews lately? How are you?
May 20, 2011
It does grow on you like "The Wolfman" grew on me after a few viewings. And I am working on a few reviews right now just haven't finished them yet and I'm fine thank you for asking. How about you?
May 20, 2011
can't really complain but work is murder. Give me a message when you post those new reviews!
May 20, 2011
Sorry to hear that and I will give you a shout when I post them.
July 07, 2009
I've not yet seen this, so I haven't read your details on the plot, but from what I've heard "Public Enemies" had a brilliant pedigree, what with Depp, Bale, and Mann all working together... but it fails to do anything new with the gangster genre. Too bad. Still, I plan on seeing it soon.
July 08, 2009
Yeh, I have a feeling you may like it. Let me know what you think when you do see it...
July 08, 2009
Will do. Generally, I'm a fan of Mann's storytelling abilities and his visual style, but on occassion I feel let down by the style over substance approach that he takes (see "Miami Vice" for an example).
July 09, 2009
I didn't like Miami Vice at all. The only thing good about it was Gong Li. I do like Mann. I enjoyed Collateral very much. If oyu don't like style over substance then you should keep your expectations real low for this movie.
July 13, 2009
Will do. I'm doing a double feature tomorrow. Since I'm also planning on seeing the midnight show of Harry Potter I'm expecting a double disappointment.
July 13, 2009
So, you saw it already? Wow, and I thought I was going to be seeing it before every one else.
July 14, 2009
Scottie, are you implying to the book or the movie? It's to be released tonight....
January 07, 2010
Finally, I saw this. Your rating was accurate. It has some great action, fair acting, great production values, but over all it feels a little empty. I hope Mann steps it up with his next film, because since "Miami Vice" he seems to be in a slump.
January 07, 2010
I agree. I like Mann but he has been on a slump lately. MIAMI VICE was horrible. Did you see my micro-review of TITANIC?
More Public Enemies (2009 movie) reviews
review by . August 09, 2011
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS      As Michael Mann is no stranger to the topic of career criminals, it seems as though John Dillinger's famous two-year crime spree would be the ideal subject for a filmmaker whose best work has often focused on tragic, principled professional felons. Dillinger burned hot and fast, and the brisk pace of this feature's 140-minute running time reflects the rush of his famous final years. However, Mann's attempts to romanticize …
review by . July 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Michael Mann's gone from being an innovator in what is often called the Mtv style of the 80's (think pastels and rain-soaked streets) to one of the most forthcoming in the use of digital video. Whether you liked his 2006 Miami Vice revamp (like me) or hated it (like everyone else), one thing that must be acknowledged is that it doesn't look like any other flick. The smoothness of movement in the format (accentuated by Mann's often questionable choice of having it overtly handheld …
review by . July 10, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
When this movie came on TV tonight, I was pleasantly surprised. I had heard and read the tragic story of John Dillinger all my life and since I missed Public Enemies (Single-Disc Edition) when it came out in 1999, I stayed riveted to the TV.    With a nation-wide man-hunt on for Public Enemy No. One, notorious bank robber John Dillinger, this drama takes the viewer along for the bloody, horrific ride. Throughout the tense action of brutal bank robberies, street warfare with Tommy-guns …
review by . July 04, 2009
   Those who liked Leo DiCaprio's Aviator will love this film with Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as the relentless Melvin Purviss who is perusing him. The movie is filled with jailbreaks, bank robberies old fashioned shootouts (though it seems that nobody every chases fleeing felons in cars).       Incredibly interesting the way Mann presents the birth of the FBI. The agents use Sherlock Holmes type tactics (the agents would make perfect computer geeks …
Quick Tip by . July 26, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Johnny Depp delivers in this beautifully shot movie. Many people might be suprised at the pace of the movie, which is slower than an action movie, which is not how I would classify the movie. It is an excellent portrayal of the period.
Quick Tip by . January 23, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Mann's uneven film biopic of the gangster John Dillinger. Nice cast, but lacks depth. Ultimately not a bad film but not a great film either.
Quick Tip by . December 22, 2009
Watched this on the plane, just not my kinda movie although it's probably a guy's favorite.
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Stills from Public Enemies (Click for larger image)

Public Enemies is a 2009 film directed by Michael Mann, an adaptation of Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34.

The crime drama is set during the Great Depression with the focus on the FBI agent Melvin Purvis's attempt to stop criminals John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd. Christian Bale plays FBI agent Purvis, Johnny Depp plays Dillinger, Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en rose) plays Dillinger's girlfriend Billie Frechette, and Channing Tatum plays Pretty Boy Floyd. Principal photography began in Columbus, Wisconsin on March 17, 2008[4] and continued in Chicago, Illinois; Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Beaver Dam, Wisconsin; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Madison, Wisconsin; and several other places in Wisconsin until the end of June 2008, including the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, the actual location of a 1934 gun fight between Dillinger and the FBI.[5] Some parts of the film were shot in Crown Point, Indiana, the town where Dillinger was imprisoned and subsequently escaped from jail.

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Director: Michael Mann
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Release Date: July 01, 2009
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Michael Mann, Ann Biderman
Runtime: 140 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios, Relativity Media, Forward Pass, Misher Films, Tribeca Productions, Appian Way, Dentsu
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