Public Enemies

Movie Review by Samuel Taradash

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Channing Tatum, Leelee Sobieski

Director: Michael Mann

PUBLIC ENEMIES aims to be more than just another cops and robbers flick, and is a striking evocation of the age of tommy-guns and bank heists, with bold visual style and great casting. But in trying to link the stories of John Dillinger and lawman Martin Purvis to the changes in society that defined them both, director Michael Mann may have stretched a bit too far.

Opening with a recreation of a 1933 prison break, the film focuses on the 9-month spree of “public enemy number one”: John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). Enjoying the prestige of robbing the banks that ruined so many depression-era families and the spoils of numerous successful robberies, the high-flying Dillinger begins a romance with Billie Flechette, played by a regrettably underused Marion Cotillard. Facing increasing pressure to end the crime wave, J Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) orders up-and-coming agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to capture Dillinger and safeguard the reputation of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation.

Depp plays Dillinger with a wiry energy, hungry for as much of life as he can steal, and it shows most in his scenes with Marion Cotillard. Bale’s aerodynamic, sculpted face perfectly suits his new-era lawman, but his discomfort with the moral compromises he’s forced to make isn’t given enough screen time to fully mature. Almost everyone on screen gives a strong performance, investing even the smaller roles with life, including an outstanding Stephen Lang, who nearly steals the end of the movie with his hard-boiled lawman.

Michael Mann brings depth and thoughtfulness to this story of a man driven to claw out his version of the good life regardless of society’s laws, another man trying to enforce the law in changing circumstances, and the inevitable casualties of their conflict. But he also seems to be commenting on the rise of organizations at the expense of the individual, and the lack of moral purity brought about by some law enforcement tactics. All of that may be too much for one film. J. Edgar Hoover is shown as a puffed-up desk jockey in command of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency solely due to his ability to play political games. And Dillinger’s loss of underworld support is attributed to the evolution of organized crime towards a more risk-averse business model. The film seems to imply that what really finished Dillinger was the twin threat of more integrated policing techniques, improved wiretapping, and the rise of the professional mobster.

But overall the film is well visualized, with the period costumes and classic cars lending a stout solidity to otherwise notional 1930s backdrop. The robbery scenes have a springy lightness to them that references Dillinger’s own speed and agility, and the gun battles are as punchy and blunt as the Thompson machine guns featured in them. PUBLIC ENEMIES is an ambitious, enjoyable film that updates the gangster movie and offers a new depth to the previously ignored characters in the Dillinger legend.

4 out of 6 stars

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