Public Enemies

Ealasaid/ July 6, 2009/ Movie Reviews and Features, Writing

Directed by: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Stephen Dorff, Jason Clarke, Billy Crudup
Rated: R for gangster violence and some language.
Parental Notes: Between the violence (which is graphic) and the rambling plotline, this is not a kid-friendly film.

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“Public Enemies” is a strange film. It’s got gangsters in it, but isn’t quite a gangster movie. It’s got FBI agents in it, but isn’t a law-enforcement procedural. It takes place in the past, but isn’t really a history film, either. It’s a strange blend of all of these at once, with some other facets (romance and tragedy, among others) thrown in for good measure. If you can let yourself get caught up in the characters, it works, but it doesn’t gel in the straightforward fashion of most modern mainstream films.
The year is 1933. The Great Depression is still raging, and crime is on the rise. Dashing bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and a cohort break the rest of their gang out of prison as the film opens, and start another run of bank robberies. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) struggles to build a modern law enforcement agency with the FBI, and promotes the determined Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), sending him to Chicago to bring Dillinger and his gang down.
Director (and co-writer) Michael Mann is fond of stories in which we sympathize with the characters on both sides of the central conflict, and “Public Enemies” is no exception. Dillinger is hard not to like — he’s charming, smooth, and dangerous enough to be interesting without being too frightening. Depp brings his formidable acting chops to bear and gives us a performance worthy of a character study. His Dillinger comes across as a very real, very fascinating person.
Bale has a harder row to hoe as Purvis, who’s no cowboy agent — he’s a modern, scientific-minded lawman. He uses the sorts of methods which are now familiar to consumers of modern police procedurals, but which were new and unusual in the thirties: tracking down the stores Dillinger shopped at, for example, and looking at the surrounding businesses for leads. Bale plays Purvis as a reserved, quiet guy whose frustration with his inability to capture Dillinger is about the only emotion we really see. We learn more about him from the things he doesn’t do (like stop his underlings from torturing a captured gangster) than from the things he does.
“Public Enemies” has an odd pacing and has plenty of scenes which don’t really seem to go anywhere. Ultimately, it probably works best if it’s watched the way Dillinger lived: in the moment. There are scenes in which characters discuss heists which are never pulled. Things don’t play out quite the way we might expect. Some of the sequences have a documentary feel rather than the look of a polished Hollywood film. The pacing falters at times, drawing some things out while giving others cursory treatment in a way that doesn’t quite make sense.
If viewers try to force the movie to gel in a standard mainstream popcorn-flick mold, they’ll likely be disappointed. The film is, like its characters, imperfect, but no less entertaining for its flaws. If all you want is a couple hours of brainless entertainment, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for an intriguing, engaging film about complex people, “Public Enemies” should be right up your alley.

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