Public Enemies Review: Cop-Out ‘N’ Robbers

July 1, 2009 by  
Filed under - Home, Film Reviews

PUBLIC ENEMIES: On general release from Wednesday 1st July

In theory, there’s simply no other movie that director Michael Mann could have made.

With a CV and directorial passion captivated by both real-life stories (Ali, The Last of the Mohicans) and the heady mix of stylish gun-porn and morally ambiguous crime flicks (Heat, Collateral), an avenue by which he could channel both his loves seemed the perfect fit.

And after the tacky, vacuous paff-fest that was Miami Vice, focusing on the cops’n’robbers exploits of the most charismatic criminal America has ever seen seemed a sure-fire way to regain audience kudos and studio support.

While he’s crafted a movie that wipes his creative criminal record clean of all mention of that Colin Farrell travesty, Public Enemies‘ attempts to steal your heart and run off into the sunset, like John Dillinger’s, fall frustratingly short.

It’s 1933 in Chicago and for those of us who dozed off during History lessons, it’s also the time of the Great Depression. Repeat offender John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) decides to take it to the man and embarks on a bank-robbing crime spree that galvanises popular public support whilst simultaneously becoming such a nationwide bureaucratic irritant that he almost single-handedly catalyses the formation of the FBI.

With a ‘carpe diem’ attitude and bizarrely gallant approach to both his robberies and his romances, it’s up to the FBI’s top man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to apprehend Dillinger once and for all and reaffirm public faith in the law system.

Stylistically, this is a sumptuous, near-tangible recreation of a period when ‘cool’ was technically efficient (the only reason for the slicked back hair was because people couldn’t afford haircuts) but aesthetically sharp. Mann’s exquisite attention to detail, from the vehicles and bank interiors to the Dick Tracy fashion, helps to craft an enriched world that is guaranteed to impress.

This is in no small part thanks to both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale’s magnificent turns.

While his roles in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation were verging on self-parody – all gruffly growls and boggly-eyed intensity – Bale’s understated and introspective Purvis is a stark reminder of how good he can be when method acting isn’t wasted on testosterone ‘roided, genre stereotypes.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Johnny Depp’s maverick vigilante is every inch the cool-cat, suave embodiment of urban lore you’d expect. Dillinger’s propensity to upholding a relatively moral (well, as moral as bank robbery and occasional homicide can get) code is conveyed in such a way that both men and women will swoon at the mere sight of Depp’s dipped hat or smouldering, broody glance.

Yet while the story is undoubtedly intriguing and eerily relevant, there’s something unquestionably missing.

The gun-fights certainly can’t be blamed, and Mann’s decision to use ‘shaky-hand’, reality TV-style cameras produce an immersive and urgent experience. The cacophony of ricochets and brutal down’n’dirty reality of each shoot-out are as adrenalised as any Heat has to offer.

Oddly enough, it’s the plot itself that fails to connect. As a biopic and faithful reflection of one man’s incredible life, it’s certainly interesting. While you’ll never be bored, the lack of insight into Dillinger’s motivations and inner turmoil results in an experience that will have viewers engaged but never invested.

In short, it’s a movie that many will respect and admire on an artistic and creative level, but never one that anyone will truly care about.

Matt Risley

For more Depp goodness, check out our ‘Things You Never Knew About Johnny Depp’, or our exclusive video interviews with Depp, Michael Mann, Marion Cotillard and Stephen Graham from the red carpet premiere….

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