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Public Enemies (2009) **1/2

July 2, 2009


written by: Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett & Ann Biderman (screenplay) and Bryan Burrough (book)

produced by: Michael Mann & Kevin Misher

directed by: Michael Mann

rated R (for gangster violence and some language)

143 min.

U.S. release date: July 1, 2009

DVD & Bluray release date: December 9, 2009


Hidden among a lifeless story and standard gangster dialogue is a great deal of talent backed by a director from Chicago who has delivered some amazing films. While this was not one of them, it’s still a fine film. This will be a nice 101 course for those unfamiliar with bank robber John Dillinger, everyone else will see some facts fudged. Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his partners in crime (including Stephen Dorff, David Wenham, and Jason Clarke) tore across the Midwest, building a name for themselves while rising in popularity during the Great Depression, earning somewhat of a celebrity status. 

 J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) labels him “Public Enemy #1” appointing his best agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to lead a team in Chicago. Purvis recently killed another famous crook, Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). Settling in Chicago, Dillinger becomes enamored with coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who for reasons unexplained suddenly becomes his girl. Purvis knows he’ll need agents just as ruthless as the thugs they are pursuing. He has former Texas Rangers transfer under him, of them no-nonsense Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang is a standout) proves a particular resource. After an amazing pursuit and shootout in the woods of Manitosh Waters, Wisconsin which results in the death of Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Dillinger tries to keep a low profile. His antics and eventual betrayals are used against him by the G-Men closing in, putting the criminal on the run and his anyone close to him in danger.


There’s no denying that this is a well-shot film. Mann helms his HD cameras giving us a very detailed Depression-era Midwest. The opening scene from the Indiana State Pen is shot with a stark bleakness amid a frenzied escape as the prison walls try to blot out the clear blue sky. Yet, I couldn’t help but think all the close-up shots did little to enhance a scene like this. If I was able to follow all the moves of this breakout, I would have been more impressed. More successful was the night scene in which Dillinger is recaptured in Miami and flown back to Indiana. It has an ethereal feel to it with all the press swarming the air strip. Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (“Heat” & “The Insider”) shows that digital has rarely been used to such rich effect while being able to capture the emotion of the moment.

Still, the film does kinda fall flat. Mann doesn’t really give us much of Dillinger the man to go on, so we’re left kinda looking elsewhere. But when we look at Purvis we see the same mission-driven robot we’ve seen Bale play as Batman and John Connor. We also see Cotillard’s character go from intriguing to one-dimensional in a matter of a couple of scenes. Clearly, Mann is more concerned here with amazing art design, costumes, sound effects and choreographer than he is with anything beyond typical gangster melodrama. At times, the music is somewhat jarring and all too familiar which makes sense since composer Elliott Goldenthal worked on “Heat” with Mann. It was a little odd to see actresses Lil Taylor, Carey Mulligan and Lelee Sobieski pop up here in minor supporting roles, but then again this is a man-heavy cast.


Overall, I found myself more interested in the FBI and the problems Hoover was having tracking down all these gangsters than I did in Dillinger. That’s a problem if Depp is playing Dillinger, as big a star as he is. Those Depp fans out there will see this no matter what. For those Mann fans expecting a slick thrill ride of cops and robbers, this just doesn’t cut it. It is a satisfying Mann film though, although for the life of me, I can’t explain why. The measured, team-produced screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, does well to juggle all the players in this drama but in the end, “Public Enemies” just comes across like formulaic melodrama.

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