Depression-era gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a charismatic bank robber whose lightning raids made him a folk hero to much of the downtrodden public - as well as
the number one target of J. Edgar Hoover's (Billy Crudup) fledgling Bureau of Investigation and its top agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). But the adventures of Dillinger's gang - later including the sociopath Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) - thrills much of the public. Desperate, Hoover has the idea of exploiting the outlaw's capture to elevate his Bureau into the national police force - that becomes the new FBI. He makes Dillinger America's first Public Enemy Number One and sends in Purvis, the dashing Clark Gable of the FBI. However, Dillinger and his gang manages to outwit and outgun Purvis' men in wild chases and shootouts - until Purvis hires old fashioned ex-lawmen from the West, who are real gunfighters.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The stories of depression era American gangsters has held a fascination for filmmakers since ... well, the depression. The exploits of many gangsters turned them into outlaw celebrities, their molls offering seductive peeps into an exotic world where men just took what they wanted, usually at the point of a gun or their penis. The fashions and cars of the era are romanticised symbols that echo an age of machismo and the Wild West after it had moved East. The addition of yet another gangster movie from that era is made enticing by the reputations of a sparkling cast and gifted director Michael Mann, whose films have texture and power. Perhaps he's allowed an error of judgement here, delivering a film that is at times incoherent, at times self conscious and thanks to Dante Spinotti being allowed to go hand held, almost always irritating to watch.
Why would someone of Spinotti's talent choose to use the hand held camera when shooting in 2.35:1 aspect ratio - offering the audience a wide expanse of screen which gives the filmmaker the scope to deliver images in context naturally? (Answers by email please ....) The loss of cohesion in the film's storytelling is accentuated by this unwarranted following of current filming fashion, further complicated by a lighting style that would only suit a more traditional approach. The camera movement on such a wide screen ramps up the eye-fatigue which a 140 minute film could well do without.
Perhaps this would be a less serious flaw were it not for the fact that many key lines of dialogue are blurred away, and several key support characters are also blurred - or undefined. There are a handful of fine scenes, though, especially the few that are captured in relative stillness between Marion Cottilard's Billie Frechette, and Johnny Depp's Dillinger. Yet for all the bluster and the shootouts, Public Enemies remains distant, like a historical record that barely digs beneath the surface of the characters, unsatisfactory in dramatic terms.
Review by Louise Keller:
Johnny Depp's notorious bank robber John Dillinger is always in control, even when the odds are against him. Although director Michael Mann's depiction of Dillinger's life is far from glamorous, in Depp's inimitable hands, he is always a likeable and often a heroic character. His raison d'être may not above the law, but the moral code by which he lives and the loyalty he bestows on his friends, is unconscionable. That hint of a smile, as Dillinger sits in the movie theatre watching Clark Gable's mobster Blackie deliver the lines 'Die the way you live,' in the 1934 Manhattan Melodrama says it all. He is one class act. Mann's film is an explosive affair, filled with pounding bullets, graphic violence and a heart-warming love story at its core that changes the way we view the cult outlaw who lives only for today.
In a key scene, when Dillinger establishes that the FBI's Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is kept awake at night by his conscience, after having shot dead an outlaw, he drops his bombshell. Coffee is the only thing that keeps him awake. His conscience is clear. The parallels between the two men are drawn constantly through the film, as Purvis follows his obsession to capture the country's notorious Public Enemy. With the help of excellent production design and astute direction, Mann takes us back in time to the era of the Great Depression, when Billy Crudup's Edgar Hoover (the administrator with no field experience) declares war on crime in the lead up to the formation of the FBI. Dillinger is the criminal elevated to celebrity status, who makes calculated, cheeky and daring escapes from any prison that dares to hold him. When he meets Marion Cotillard's hat-check girl Billie, he tells her he likes fast cars, movies, whisky and her. What else indeed does a girl need to know?
Mann alerts us to a sense of danger throughout and we are sucked into the times and the life of this daredevil outlaw who rules out working with anyone who is desperate. It's a close up view of life on the edge and for those with an adversity to hand held, shaky camera work, beware. Jumpy perspectives do not always result in unsettling results. On the contrary, they can irritate and take you out of the moment. Although they lived at different times, there are parallels between Depp's Dillinger and Vincent Cassel's 50s bank robber Jacques Mesrine, beautifully portrayed in Jean-François Richet's brilliant two-part epic Public Enemy Number One. The latter surprisingly is the superior film, although both are supreme characterisations.
Email this article
PUBLIC ENEMIES (MA)
CAST: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cottilard, Billy Crudup, James Russo, David Wenham, Christian Stolte, Jason Clarke, John Judd, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, John Ortiz, Lili Taylor, Leele Sobieski
PRODUCER: Michael Mann, Kevin Misher
DIRECTOR: Michael Mann
SCRIPT: Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman (book by Bryan Burrough)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dante Spinotti
EDITOR: Jeffrey Ford, Paul Rubell
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Nathan Crowley
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 30, 2009