Film Review: “Public Enemies”

I’ve been a fan of director Michael Mann (Ali, The Last of the Mohicans) for some years now. One thing I’ve always been able to count on is that no matter what project he’s filming, it will be a worthy consideration, a high-class work of art.

That is, until now.

Public Enemies, the latest Mann film, about the FBI hunt for legendary criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a lengthy potboiler of a thriller, as most of Mann’s films tend to be. The problem here however, is that the pot boils overly long, the thrills are virtually nonexistent, and the story is sadly pedestrian, being one that we’ve seen many times before — including from Mann himself.

Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the film tracks the brilliant yet often brutal career of John Dillinger, a man who loves robbing banks as much for the public acclaim as for the money. Dillinger is known for his eccentric style, smooth appearance, being not unkind to his hostages (at one point even giving his own coat to a female captive to protect her from Chicago’s windy breezes), never taking money from customers of the banks he robs–only from the banks themselves–and his clean getaways. He doesn’t even shoot cops unless backed into a corner with no other option. He’s a true gentlemen’s criminal.

Assigned to capture Dillinger is one Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a dedicated agent placed in charge of the FBI’s Chicago bureau by none other than J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) himself. Unfortunately, after a botched attempt to capture Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), in which one of his own agents is killed, Purvis realizes his slick looking but inexperienced field agents aren’t quite up to the task, and he’s forced to recruit outside help to nab Nelson, some other gangsters, and of course public enemy #1, Dillinger.

It’s a shame this film doesn’t live up to the hype, but of course the writing was pretty much on the wall when Universal began showing the trailer less and less with major films coming out these past few months. The story is barely above average, a very dry telling of one of the more famous criminal pursuits in American history. In his time, Dillinger was the criminal equivalent of a rock star–the ultimate bad boy, getting away with robbing banks, putting his arm playfully around lawmens’ shoulders when he was occasionally caught, then escaping from prisons with an almost casual glee. Yet Mann seems not to be so much making a film, as he did with the crime classic Heat (1995) or its brother wannabe Collateral (2004), as he is busy constructing a movie, passing blandly from scene to scene, doing his best to evoke the astmosphere of the ’30s without capturing any of its spirit or flavor. It doesn’t help that Bale gives a surprisingly stilted performance, or that not for one moment does one get the sense they are so fully immersed in the tale that they’re witnessing Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) being gunned down by Purvis, or that Purvis and Dillinger trade barbs once the robber is locked away. While Depp does steal the show with a winning charisma, these are simply actors playing their parts, and it’s all too clearly evident.

The tone of the story is somewhat reminiscent of Heat’s story arc, even daring to lift a line or two of dialogue from that superior film. Even Elliot Goldenthal’s (Across the Universe, Titus) music score seems to have been more obviously placed, to the point it intrudes upon the tale instead of complimenting it.

There really isn’t much more that can be said. All around, Public Enemies is a disappointing film. Without flavor, a spark to sustain interest, it’s nothing more than just another stale treat from the cookie cutter factory.




  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    It's gotten to the point where I enjoy reading about Mann's movies more than seeing them. MIAMI VICE was such a botch, as if its creator had no idea what made it work in the first place.

    Bale really has to snap out of his funk. Pretty much every review is “Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale),” with no further mention of his performance. He needs a romantic comedy, a musical–something besides “intensity.”

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    It's gotten to the point where I enjoy reading about Mann's movies more than seeing them. MIAMI VICE was such a botch, as if its creator had no idea what made it work in the first place.

    Bale really has to snap out of his funk. Pretty much every review is “Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale),” with no further mention of his performance. He needs a romantic comedy, a musical–something besides “intensity.”

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    It's gotten to the point where I enjoy reading about Mann's movies more than seeing them. MIAMI VICE was such a botch, as if its creator had no idea what made it work in the first place.

    Bale really has to snap out of his funk. Pretty much every review is “Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale),” with no further mention of his performance. He needs a romantic comedy, a musical–something besides “intensity.”

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