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Public Enemies review

Colette Bernasconi finds Depp diligent as Dillinger in a film which lacks charisma

Published on July 7th 2009.


Public Enemies review

Public Enemies is not a movie about the thrilling, romantic life of the man they called “Robin Hood with a tommy gun”. Michael Mann does not indulge the myths or address the many legends surrounding gangster and bank robber extraordinaire John Dillinger. Instead, he chooses to tell the whole story of how Dillinger was caught and how the highly publicised chase led to the expansion of FBI powers to a federal level for the first time.

An underwritten script and fractured plotline keeps the audience from getting under the skin of the main characters

While the cop-and-fugitive dynamic that Mann explored in Heat has a role in the movie, it is developed as just another factor among a maelstrom of exceptional circumstances that provide the background to Dillinger’s fall.

These include: a changing crime world that is discovering more sophisticated enterprises and starting to see high-profile bank robbers a liability; an ambitious PR campaign to expand the powers of the FBI whose ringmaster has Dillinger in his crosshairs, and public support that is strongly divided along social lines.

Another interesting element is Dillinger’s almost pathological cocksureness. One scene sees him wander into the John Dillinger Unit in the Bureau of Investigation and walk among the police there, admiring his own life as seen through their surveillance.

All of these elements create a fascinating background but Mann neglects to bring the foreground into focus. An underwritten script and fractured plotline keeps the audience from getting under the skin of the main characters.

This detachment is in spite of some good acting. It was refreshing to see Johnny Depp not playing a chimerical man-child for once. His John Dillinger is an irreverent and steely mix of bravado and decency.

Marion Cotillard’s half-French, half-squaw Billie Frechette is tragic and engaging, and no one does dazzled infatuation like she does. Their relationship is one of the underwritten elements, despite a handful of captivating moments between them.

Christian Bale shines as the diligent arm of the law, but again the script does not allow cop Melvin Purvis much of a second dimension. His character is all duty and police procedure, and, unlike in Heat, there is almost no connection and no identification between the cop and the robber.

Dillinger tries, in one scene, to engage Purvis in a conversation about death but the small-town foot soldier is clearly not up to scale. This shortcoming makes the cat-and-mouse that is a big part of the film little more than a methodical pursuit; cops and robbers doing what they do.

The supporting characters were all jumbled into each other. Sometimes literally: a big caveat with this movie is that Mann’s cinematographer Dante Spinotti opted for handheld digital video images for many scenes, giving them a jerky and distractingly unfinished look. This technique lent an exciting feel of proximity to some excellent forest chase scenes but made the dialogue scenes weird and distant.

Mann’s refusal to portray Dillinger as a larger-than-life legend is fair enough; the film is based on Bryan Burrough’s academic-sounding book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. But the neglect of the central plot and characters combined with a disengaging filming technique had the effect of somehow making John Dillinger’s story even smaller than life.

4/10
Currently playing in theatres.

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