Short version: While Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is very good, it’s missing the spark that could have pushed it to “great.”
Screen Rant reviews Public Enemies
If you’re looking for a low key alternative to the summer blockbuster movie season, then you’ll welcome the Michael Mann-directed Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard. Having said that, don’t expect to be blown away by this surprisingly low-key film.
In Public Enemies we are presented with a (seemingly) romanticized story of the fall of John Dillinger, famous bank robber of the 1930s. Johnny Depp brings his considerable screen charisma to the role of Dillinger, while Christian Bale has the unenviable position of playing the fairly dour Melvin Purvis – the FBI agent that brought Dillinger down.
Right from the start of the film we get a sense of Dillinger’s loyalty to his gang, his skill at planning and the outrageous level of confidence of the man. He’s been separated from his cohorts, but is soon reunited and is back in the groove, knocking off banks in less than two minutes “flat.” We are also shown a “popular” side when he robs banks but does not take any money from customers that are present. He seems to care for the plight of the average person during this era of the Great Depression – but there is some self-serving at work as well: He is quite aware of his popularity with the general public and goes out of his way to cultivate a “star” persona.
His uber-confident personality is also demonstrated in his approach to Billie Frachette (played by Marion Cotillard) – a no-nonsene, not a doubt in his mind that she will be his attitude that of course turns out to be correct. She is a bit hesitant when she learns who he is, but his reaction to her checkered history (it doesn’t bother him at all) and his supreme confidence wins her over. However she is far from a pushover or someone who is easily misled or manipulated by him.
J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is gaining power in Washington D.C. and is in the process of forming the FBI. In order to prove his (and his organization’s) worth to political doubters he makes the capture of John Dillinger his number one priority and puts agent Purvis (Christian Bale) in charge. Hoover is all about modern scientific methods instead of brute force, but it turns out that it will take a combination of that and some “old school” to capture the Dillinger gang.
We get to see a bit of Dillinger in his glory, but eventually we see the downfall of him and his gang. He is portrayed as a bad guy who is so charming that you actually feel bad for him when he finally goes down – what you have to keep in mind of course is that even if he’s not doing (much) killing himself, his “boys” certainly aren’t shy about it. There’s plenty of gunfire and blood in the film, but director Michael Mann manages to make you feel empathy towards Depp’s character, even though Dillinger shows no remorse about his life of crime.
Outside of Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard, who were both VERY good in the film (really when ISN’T Depp great?) the film seemed to keep the audience at arm’s length. It just felt kind of distant and quiet despite the violence and some really great shoot-outs. Christian Bale was good, and he left the gravel out of his voice for this role, but for me he never really disappeared into the role the way that Depp did.
The other thing that was very different about Public Enemies is that it was shot digitally – there was no “film” feel to it… it looked more like how a Blu-ray disc looks on an HDTV. Overly crisp, detailed and bright. I like that look on my TV, but on the big screen of a movie theater it just seemed odd and out of place.
Overall if you’re a fan of Johnny Depp and crime dramas (this isn’t an action film, folks) then I think you’ll enjoy Public Enemies.