- Director Michael Mann has experience in both gangster films (Heat (1995)) and period dramas (The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), Ali (2001)) and he puts both genres together in Public Enemies (2009), a film about 1930s bank-robber/gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who is devoted to apprehending him. Public Enemies is a good film but is also unfortunately disappointing in some respects.
Public Enemies has an interesting premise. Instead of being a film about John Dillinger's rise and fall, Public Enemies begins with Dillinger at the peak of his crime-spree and sees him move forward into a world that is no longer compatible with his kind of bank-robbing. This leads to interesting scenes and plot turns where Dillinger has to face the facts and adapt. Also, the film's depiction of the 1930s gangster life and FBI struggles is excellent and interesting. Unfortunately, there are many aspects about the film that are not horrible but definitely disappointing.
Michael Mann is, overall, a good director; I like the vast majority of films in his filmography, especially Collateral (2004) and The Insider (1999). But for Public Enemies, Mann films each scene with a sort of pseudo-documentary feel and I am not sure that it was the right approach. This documentary style does serve a number of scenes quite well - especially the scene in which Dillinger and Red Hamilton try to escape the Texas Rangers in the forest - but too many other times the film looks like a Discovery Channel production. The look of the film is not bad by a long shot, but would it have been better to film Public Enemies in a more cinematic way - dare I suggest, a neo film noir style? - I think so.
Public Enemies is historical fiction with an emphasis on the FICTION half of the genre - much of what happens in the film is completely false or out of order. One could write off my taking issue with the film's disregard for history due to my great interesting in history, quipping back that Public Enemies is only a movie and not meant to teach history.... Or you can consider yourself warned that history is thrown to the wind in the film. The choice is yours.
The performances in Public Enemies are good but they are also disappointing and not much to get excited about. Both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are solid but they both have done better work. Bale looks to be sleepwalking through the entire film and Depp is just not as spectacular as he usually is. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose (2007), Big Fish (2003)), who plays Dillinger's woman Billie Frechette, and Stephen Lang, who plays Texas Ranger leader Charles Winstead, however are very impressive.
The technical aspects (cinematography, sets, costumes, etc.) might be better, but when it comes to cinematic entertainment I would pick the Lawrence Tierney starring Max Nosseck directed 1945 film Dillinger over Public Enemies any day. However, with the good performances, interesting story, and handful of intense scenes, Public Enemies is a good and recommendable film. Still, Mann's latest is a mile away from being The Untouchables (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), The Departed (2006), or any other great gangster film made in the last twenty-five years.
CBC Rating: 7/10