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Theatrical Review: Public Enemies

1933, four years into The Great Depression and the time of bank robbers like Alvin Karpus, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger- and also the time when FBI head J. Edgar Hoover charges agent Melvin Purvis with the task to bring John Dillinger to justice…

… and there you have the premise to Public Enemies detailing the cat-and-mouse pursuit of John Dillinger and the newest movie from director Michael Mann. I have to say, when I first saw the trailers to this, I was real excited for the film with visions of Mann’s crime epics like Heat and the TV series Crime Story in my head, though the reality after seeing Public Enemies is more along the lines of Mann’s tepid re-make of his own Miami Vice into a film…

Sorry to say that, but this was disappointing to say the least and and way too padded out, so much so that it’s more sleep-inducing than exciting, though to be fair, there’s a few good set pieces along the way. But good set pieces just do not make a good overall movie, and what this lacks is character (which Heat had in droves) and a fun/excitement factor that would just keep you glued to the screen. I was left at the end wishing this had been more Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables more than anything else.

In Heat, there’s a lot there that basically illustrates why our protagonists are the way they are and while this didn’t have to go to the same depths that Heat does, what’s here leaves you with protagonists that are very one and two dimensional. Dillinger is given the greater emphasis and a lot of that is basically pointing you to a direction of “Well, he wasn’t really that bad a guy” at the end. Now that would be fine I think if the same consideration had been given to the other side- the law- especially because there is an equal amount of time given to both, but here Purvis and his crew are given very little other than just the acts of finding Dillinger (though some members of Purvis’ squad are shown in a blood-thirsty capacity, that’s be fine if there was more to it, but here it’s more to enforce sympathy with John Dillinger more than anything else).

I can’t fault the actors with this, Johnny Depp is Dillinger and Christian Bale is Purvis and both do decent jobs with the material that’s given. The standout to me was actually Billy Cruddup in some brief scenes playing J. Edgar Hoover. The least here is Marion Cotillard who really just didn’t leave anything lasting for me in the end.

The fault here is clearly Mann’s who wants to underplay this so much that it loses any sort of sense of fun or excitement that this should have about it. On top of that, at least to me, there’s a lot of times where it’s hard to figure out just where you’re at in the film- location-wise anyway and how all of it coordinates together. I’ve read online of a lot of technical inaccuracies to what really happened and honestly, that doesn’t really matter a lot to me in the end for something like this, as long as what you have in the end turns out to be fairly exciting.

Public Enemies doesn’t do that though, and instead, there were more times where I had to fight off sleep more than anything else. Reviews are all over the map on this, so some out there may very well like this and think it’s the greatest thing to ever hit, but for myself… I think I’ll sit back tonight and pop in DePalma’s The Untouchables again…

By Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

One reply on “Theatrical Review: Public Enemies”

I’m a fan of Mann’s films. Then Miami Vice came out. (Good lord…)

This film is not among Mann’s greats (Heat, The Insider), but it’s not bad like Miami Vice.

I liked this movie’s understatedness, because it was more analytical, about methodology–cruder at the time–and about the many different motivations and rationales for law enforcement and crime.

It’s not flashy or sexy, but as a no-nonsense historical drama, I thought it was very good. The gangster flick is so highly stylized, it’s nice to see Mann bring his dry “Insider” style that keeps the audience at arm’s length but allows them to listen in on the “science” of crime fighting.

I liked it.

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