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Overall Rating

Awesome: 17.24%
Worth A Look: 15.52%
Average: 18.97%
Pretty Bad34.48%
Total Crap: 13.79%

4 reviews, 34 user ratings

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Public Enemies
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by Erik Childress

"Michael Mann Has A Date With The Biograph"
2 stars

Public Enemies is one great big giant mess of a missed opportunity. For every piece of American history there are at the bare minimum five different ways to tell its story. Many films have had their crack at the legend of John Dillinger over the years, using him both as their lead or as a supporting character, depending on the point of view. You could tell a full biopic from childhood to his death at the age of 31. You could skip ahead and just charter his criminal career. Wove in the backdrop of the Great Depression and the idea that he was a folk hero along the lines of Robin Hood. There’s Dillinger’s primary courtship of Billie Frechette, a key figure during the final year of his life that could represent an outlet towards legitimacy. As a crime story in general there’s always the great standby of the duality of the top cop hunting down the robber, an idea right in the wheelhouse of director Michael Mann who tackled as much in his exemplary thrillers, Manhunter and Heat. Public Enemies, based on the acclaimed book by Bryan Burrough, promises to dispel the myths about Dillinger and give us the most historically and technically accurate tale about him to date. Instead we’ve been left with a film that can’t settle on which history it wants to tell and ends up dispelling the myth that a new film by Michael Mann is a cause worth celebrating.

Just so we’re clear on where we’re beginning this story, the giant numbers of “1933” are flashed on the screen and we’re right on time for John Dillinger’s first prison break. Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his gang of not-so-merry men bust out and head into hiding aided by mob associates and corrupt cops. Where one escapes though, another is gunned down. Bureau agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) takes out Pretty Boy Floyd and garners the attention of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Hoover has been under fire by the appropriations committee for costing them tons while crime continues to rise. That and being a glorified lawman when he has never apprehended a bad guy with his own hands leads Hoover to put Purvis in charge of all things Dillinger.

Able to hide in plain sight by apparently treating the commoners with respect, Dillinger hitches his wagon to the beautiful Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). She’s hesitant to hook up with a guy who casually tosses off his profession as a bank robber, but give a pretty girl a fur coat and she’ll follow you anywhere, I guess. Dillinger’s gang continues their spree until he is popped again. With the embarrassment he continues to cause the Bureau, especially after a second escape, the doors begin to close for Dillinger. Purvis’ efforts are beefed up and the Chicago mob, represented by Frank Nitti, believe he’s bringing the heat closer to their more organized efforts. Everything naturally leading to that fateful evening at the Biograph theater where Dillinger’s story ended.

It would be easy to stamp a “The End” after that paragraph if we weren’t so fascinated with the anti-heroes of what was known as the public enemy era. Which is why its so puzzling how little effort was made to create a plausibly-executed screenplay that was able to gel into something that should have been a gangster classic of epic proportions. The easy comparison to what Mann delivers here is akin to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, taking a small chunk from a legendary figure’s life and minimalizing it into a structure of mood and the occasional seminal event. Public Enemies only generates that particular feeling though by being unable to establish precisely what element was worthy of the most attention. With no one focus on this as either a character study or a snapshot of a period, it’s easy to mistake Mann’s work as delving deeper into a subject simply because its not revealing too much. All the contrary. It throws at us so many characters, situations and attempts at finding a through-line that we’re never able to attach mood or context to any of it.

Aside from Dillinger, Purvis and Frechette, no one is on screen long enough to establish their importance to the story or a semblance of their actual relationship to one of the three. Mann’s egregious error in not fleshing out any of these supporting players is only exemplified by his casting of one recognizable presence after another. Stephen Dorff comes closest to developing his friendship with Dillinger, but that’s only because he actually has more than two scenes in the film. Other members of his gang include David Wenham and James Russo, the latter of whom dead in the opening scene but spoken with reverence about by Dillinger throughout even though we hardly knew ye. Giovanni Ribisi appears in the Jon Voight role as the guy with a big score setup for Dillinger – and anyone who can argue why he’s necessary to the story is kidding themselves. His first scene promises the big score and then he reappears (with no other reference to him) 90 minutes later to show us the train that they plan to rob. Bye bye, Ribisi.

Same goes for the other side of the law. Rory Cochrane gets a couple dialogue exchanges as Purvis’ right-hand friend but like Dorff barely gets room to breathe. Ironic considering the symmetry of both actor’s roles in the film’s centerpiece motel shootout. Crudup’s Hoover gets the hell established out of him in his opening scene, but aside from a photo op with some Junior G-Men and a phone call of failure from Purvis, one of the key figures of this story’s backdrop is completely forgotten about. Here was a guy whose thunder was being upstaged by the criminals he was chasing and the young agent he setup to lead the charge. None of that registers as much as Lili Taylor, in her one scene, playing the Indiana sheriff who incarcerated Dillinger in her escape-proof jail. The list continues though including an unrecognizable (to the film’s advantage) Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd and Stephen Lang who is all but mute as some expert help Purvis brings in (they were sharpshooters – a fact the film never bothers to mention) until he all but steals the film with a couple solidly-delivered lines of dialogue in the before and after of the Biograph sequence. How about Shawn Hatosy who is seen amongst Purvis’ office flunkies and when is finally given a line of dialogue is literally interrupted before he can finish?

Flip on over to the women’s side and you can spot Lost’s Emilie de Ravin as a bank employee taken hostage and left in the woods and Carey Mulligan, who won raves at this year’s Sundance for her role in the forthcoming An Education, as a bleach-blonde safe house owner who gets to nod at Dillinger. Plus Leelee Sobieski who seems to materialize out of thin air in the final scenes as Dillinger’s escort at the Biograph. She is supposed to be Polly Hamilton, reportedly his girlfriend at the time of his death. Mann and his writers, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, provide so little effort into this moil switch that they completely undercut the relationship they have labored to establish for the previous two hours. Granted the word “girlfriend” is never used to describe Polly. Nor is the word “Polly” for that matter. But for all the time squeezed in to accentuate the love affair between Dillinger and Frechette, including her being beaten to protect his whereabouts, there’s not a whole lot of character in Dillinger taking up DeNiro’s advice about what to do with a woman when you spot the heat around the corner.

There’s not a whole lot of character in Dillinger to begin with, so why introduce any in the final act? In one of the pair of clunkier pieces of exposition disguised as tough guy dialogue, Dillinger runs down a list of personal likes Crash Davis-style to Frechette and ends with “what else do you need to know?” Oh, how about whether the filmmakers view you as a trumped-up celebrity of the time or a calculated sociopath who enjoyed the rush of the chase? We have no idea who Dillinger was or what the film is trying to make him to be. If not for Depp’s always watchable presence (and he does have good moments) we would have bailed on this story much earlier. That goes double for Bale’s Purvis, who aside from being a good shot in his introductory scene, is never provided the gravitas as a lawman with any particular skills as a leader nor as one with an Eliot Ness-like arc to him. Most scenes in the field consist of him wondering aloud about escaped suspects, “was that Dillinger?” and when he’s advised by Hoover to “take the gloves off” there’s no context as to what that’s going to entail. The aforementioned sharpshooters had already been called in during a time when criminals had the best engines to outrun their pursuers and once you’ve shot Pretty Boy Floyd in the back from a couple hundred yards, how much tougher can you get on criminals? When we’re informed in the end of Purvis’ fate after leaving the Bureau, the film (however unintentionally) suggests that these types of cases took a toll on the man, something we’re never privy to through the course of Public Enemies aside from his reaction to one of his guys being killed. Amazing in that I didn’t think Bale could have a more underwritten part than John Connor this summer. Boy, was I wrong.

Not that Mann doesn’t try to get inside his characters by pushing the camera so close to their faces that it threatens them as much as any bullet. But the window to the soul cannot be achieved through extreme close-ups any better than a period picture be improved with HD cameras. In the same manner that Oliver Stone became obsessed with a certain style after JFK, Michael Mann has embraced the more low-key approach he brought to Collateral and substituted it for a real sense of grandeur. Collateral at least was consistent in its visual approach. With Public Enemies, Mann switches so often that we’re lost as to whether he wants a classically shot epic or one filmed by an indie documentarian on public access. Why would he choose to waste the compositions of Dante Spinotti who contributed to Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and The Insider, not to mention one of the best period police procedurals of any period, L.A. Confidential? Especially since Spinotti was there during Mann's salad days as a filmmaker, a time that has been gone for a decade with the likes of Ali, Collateral, Miami Vice, and now this.

For a director known to a fault for his attention to the itty-bitties and rivaling Kubrick on take counts, it’s hard to fathom why such care wasn’t taken with the screenplay which never finds a clear footing on what type of gangster film this wants to be. With Dillinger and Purvis only sharing one scene together (and no insight brought to Purvis whatsoever), this is by far the study of duality between the hunter and the hunted that has become Mann’s forte. As for a police procedural its not even close to the level of mixed efforts like Clint Eastwood’s Changeling or David Fincher’s overrated Zodiac. It never quite reaches a level of dialogue-free introspection and is never just a string of robbery sequences and shootouts, though it does reach for the latter more frequently. The aforementioned motel ambush aspires to be this film’s Heat gunfight, but thanks to Mann’s grainy cinematography under the cover of darkness, geography is lost and we can never tell who is firing at whom unless he goes for one of his signature close-ups. The film’s most riveting sequence is one where Dillinger casually strolls into police headquarters and sees the legacy of crime and death he’s left behind him. Too bad Public Enemies couldn’t have made us just as interested in it.

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originally posted: 07/01/09 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/23/12 roscoe Hated this. Depp is miscast. Little action, no interest, no intensity, overlong 1 stars
9/19/10 Jan Patterson Disappoints. Some cllassic Mann, beautiful Depp moments stolen by careless camera & editing 2 stars
3/07/10 matt upon further review, hugely flawed 2 stars
1/27/10 Durwood Good gangster film, but you can't feel sorry for Dillinger--he was nothing but a crook! 4 stars
1/01/10 mr.mike Action Fan beat me to it. Oates and Stanton were priceless in that film. 3 stars
12/19/09 Monday Morning Amazing they can spend $200+ mil. and come up with this underwhelming, disappointing film 2 stars
12/11/09 Jack I'm stunned. Mann has lost it. Period. 1 stars
12/11/09 action movie fan dillinger 1973 was far better-faster moving and more comic relief 2 stars
12/05/09 matt fictionalized, but hugely entertaining 5 stars
10/19/09 The Lurchprong Splitter Setup hindered by overindulgence in being a period piece. 3 stars
9/02/09 Jeff Wilder Effective old school gangster flick. Depp great. Bale effective but underused. 4 stars
8/31/09 Dave Phosdyk I 'd give it 3 and a half stars 3 stars
7/24/09 Toni Gangsters with Tommy guns, classic Mann what more could you ask for? 4 stars
7/23/09 stiletto average blahhhhhhhhhhhh 1 stars
7/22/09 Gummby3 It's nice to see Hollywood writers actually create something original for once. 4 stars
7/18/09 MoovieMac Literate and thoughtful. Takes you back effectively to this time and place. Like a Monogram 4 stars
7/17/09 R.W. Welch C+ account of Dillinger days; could have been tightened up. 3 stars
7/17/09 damalc it must have been hard to make a movie starring Depp so uninteresting 3 stars
7/12/09 Jeff Wilder Good gangster film that's easy to admire. But tough to love. Mann's a master filmmaker. 4 stars
7/12/09 Ivan Lendl ditto Brian Orndorf 2 stars
7/12/09 Ivan Lendl brilliant review and writing by Erik Childress 2 stars
7/11/09 MP Bartley If you want things spelling out for you, watch a Ron Howard film. Terrific entertainment. 4 stars
7/07/09 michael man i suck and i have not made a great film since Heat and fuck you all 1 stars
7/06/09 Johnny Eager Script poor.. acting good. Hand Held camera has to go! 4 stars
7/06/09 Johnny Mac You can't be serious! 5 stars
7/05/09 pete sampras Mann fails on every level on this one. Overhyped film with average script, mediocre acting 1 stars
7/05/09 Serena Williams Mann's restraint from preaching demonstrates maturity. 5 stars
7/05/09 rafael nadal i'm sorry but this movie fails on trying to say something 1 stars
7/04/09 Andy Roddick Like the bird in the song, Public Enemies is hauntingly dark and mysteriously beautiful. 5 stars
7/03/09 Kermit Crissey not as good as I was hoping 2 stars
7/03/09 roger federer feels like a USA documentary on 1930's gangster life posing as art 1 stars
7/03/09 Ming Johnny Depp was great as Dillinger. An excellent film about the violent time of this period 4 stars
7/01/09 pantera very boring slow ass crime drama 1 stars
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  01-Jul-2009 (R)
  DVD: 08-Dec-2009


  DVD: 08-Dec-2009

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