Public Enemies

July 2, 2009


I like the 30s. Everyone wore cool clothes, whether it’s the thick woolen suits for guys or frilly figure hugging dresses for dolls. And everyone talked like a Gangster or a tight lipped desk jockey. So it was with moderate excitement that I went to see Michael Mann’s latest picture Public Enemies. It’s got some decent reviews from a few UK sources but I tend to avoid reading reviews before I see a movies so as to keep a fresh, personal perspective. But with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale playing cat and mouse in an old-timey Chicago it was hard not to feel I was in for a treat.

Verdict? Mixed. It’s lucky that Mann is good at filming gunfights as there are a lot of them, and the film’s flimsy narrative is hung around one exchange of fire after the next. Whilst Mann has tried to produce something resembling story telling found in classical Hollywood pictures he doesn’t pull it off. There’s supposed to be this dramatic tension and competition between Bale and Depp as lawman Melvin Purvis and bank robber John Dillinger respectively. However, Bale’s character turns out to be young, inept and incapable of keeping a hold on Dillinger who is cocky and at points incautious, escaping through luck rather than skill. This lack of any real connection between the two characters removes any sense that one is closing in on the other, and so the conclusion of the film seems much like the rest of the events, random. Dillinger’s relationship with his ‘bit o’ skirt’ (perhaps that’s cockney) Billie Frechette which we are told is so passionate that he’ll risk capture and death in order to see her is also underplayed. Here fierce loyalty and love of Dillinger develops instantly and off screen, and the film’s lack of temporal continuity spoils its impact. Time’s passage can only be measured by whether Depp has had time to grow a moustache or not.

The period setting is done justice with the costumes and the vehicles, but the dialogue is a let down. At one point a Judge who is sentencing Dillinger says the word ‘ok’ as if he were a teen cheerleader in a coming of age sex comedy. Which he is not. Elsewhere the script falls into cliche and nothing particularly interesting is said. Billy Crudup does an impression of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover which is pleasantly over the top and Stephen Graham (This is England etc) is also enjoying himself. Fans of The Wire will also have to keep an eye out for two of its regulars on screen. Ooo, and Giovanni Ribisi has a nice little cameo. I do like him.

Public Enemies does capture some aspects of the setting well and there are little glimpses of the brilliance that could have been present, but it lacks cohesion. The gunfights are the highlight and feel ‘real’ as far as my understanding goes, but it’s not enough to completely reconcile the film’s faults. Despite all of the criticisms there’s no major reason that you shouldn’t go and see Public Enemies while it’s on, especially if you’re tiring of comic book blockbusters that fill the schedules at the moment. But my advice is go and re-watch Heat to see a similar premise executed on a somehow more epic scale.

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