Public Enemies (2009) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA rated R for strong violence, some sensuality and language
Running time: 140 min.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Jason Clarke, Stephen Lang, Robyn Suzanne Scott, Leelee Sobieski, Lili Taylor
Cameo: Channing Tatum, Emilie de Ravin, Carey Mulligan, Diana Krall

Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Ann Biderman, Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett (based on the book by Brian Burrough)
Review published February 21, 2012

public enemies 2009 michael mannUsing Brian Burrough's book, "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43" as its inspiration, Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Collateral) skillfully puts together a fine Great Depression-era drama with bits of thriller and action elements to spin the yarn of the rise and fall of bank robber and public menace (and celebrity criminal) John Dillinger (Depp, Sweeney Todd).  He's known by the public at large, not only for his string of successful heists, but also his ability to get out of every jail they stick him into, and some of the common folk even consider him a sort of a hero for stealing money from the very banks that they view responsible for the market crash altogether.  Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation, The Dark Knight) is the foil, FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who earned some headlines of his own for taking down Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum, Step Up), and this fame catapults him to the top of J. Edgar Hoover's (Crudup, Watchmen) list of men to spearhead America's War on Crime against thugs such as Dillinger, who is targeted as Public Enemy Number One.

As is the case with most of his films, Mann takes the material with straight-faced seriousness, even crafting a bit of a love story within the construct of the cat-and-mouse thrills of cop vs. crook.  It's similar in terms of putting both sides of the law as two sides of the same coin, much as he did with his seminal Heat, though Dillinger emerges as the more sympathetic portrayal of the two, while Purvis is just pure professionalism.  While most films regard old gangster tales with a sense of nostalgia, Mann eschews much of this with a modern delivery, using handheld cameras that put the viewer right in the action, cranking up the rat-a-tats of the machine guns and not holding back on the brutality of the violence inflicted by crooks and cops alike.

Depp is fascinating to watch as a rather soft but nuanced take on Dillinger, who enjoys the thrill of the chase well enough, about as much as he enjoys fast cars and the company of women.  It's interesting to see Dillinger wavering between wanting to remain just anonymous enough to create the mystique that would see him regarded as a cultural phenomenon, while also relishing the spotlight and celebrity status that such notoriety bestows. Marion Cotillard (Big Fish, Love Me If You Dare)  plays Dillinger's main moll, Billie Frechette, and their relationship takes up a good deal of the film's sprawling run time.  How much you are interested in this subplot, which sometimes feels like the main plot, may determine how much you end up enjoying the film as a whole.  Bale takes a more understated approach to his role, a drawling Southerner without a richly defined personality other than to be tenacious and calm in his pursuit of the most wanted man in the country.

As effective and sumptuous as much of Public Enemies is, some viewers may need to be warned that, at its heart, Mann is crafting more of a drama than he is an action film, and even the explosive moments that erupt from time to time is done more for realistic effect than for heightened thrills and chills.  Mann is more interested in the psychology behind the men involved rather than lengthy foot-chases and car crashes, though both are part of the overall story.  This may leave some with expectations feeling a bit cheated that the film is a good deal of build-up to a thrill ride that never quite manifests itself in the way that, say, The Untouchables did with similar material.  Nevertheless, there's no denying Mann does maintain a thick atmosphere and palpable  tension that grips throughout, even if titillation takes a back seat to aesthetic presentation.

Also interesting is that the screenplay by Biderman (Primal Fear), Mann and Bennett (Lucky Break) touches on the broader scope of Burrough's book, which is a broad, non-fiction account of the gangster era and the creation of the FBI, and made it a personal film about Dillinger as a lover and a fighter, and Purvis as a love of crime fighting.  Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, which seemed to be about much more than a story of bank robbers, Mann is content to keep Public Enemies mostly about the men involved.  While thematically, not the most resonant film in Mann's oeuvre, this is still stellar work as a filmmaker, featuring wonderful character touches, fine performances, a rich sense of period, and an absorbing story to tell.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo