On DVD: Public Enemies


It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a good cat-and-mouse thriller done old school, and that’s exactly what “Public Enemies” is. Merely trade in your usual summer crime movie full of thieves in ski masks wielding uzis for ones wearing suits and fedoras armed with tommy guns and suddenly you’re getting entertained Great Depression-style. “Public Enemies” is a neat crossover between the action-packed thrillers of today and the mob movies of yesterday, and one that comes to us well-armed with the talents of Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and a master of the thriller genre: director Michael Mann.

“Public Enemies” is about 80 percent action thriller, 20 percent biography of infamous ’30s bank robber John Dillinger (Depp). It gives us a colorful character portrait of Dillinger as a care-free crook with a sense of humor, but its main goal is to give us a handful of flashy crackling gun fights. It’s not an intimate or dramatic character study that makes us think twice about what it means to be America’s most wanted; the intention is to develop Dillinger enough so that Depp can make him an intriguing personality for us to follow on this 140- minute “catch me if you can” adventure. So check your Oscar-caliber expectations at the theater entrance.

Depp is a perfect fit as Dillinger, a man who lived in the moment, doing only as he wanted and hearing only what he wanted to hear, even when it was “you won’t get away with this forever.” He’s a likable criminal type, not unlike a clean-shaven and articulate Jack Sparrow. Basically, he makes life hell for the Bureau of Investigation (it’s his example that will later add the “F”) and the chief detective on his case — Melvin Purvis (Bale). He’s the silly rabbit that keeps getting away, and Bale — in a strong but unremarkable performance — vows to hunt him down.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory for director/writer Mann, whose thriller “Heat” was basically a more sophisticated modern version of the cat-and-mouse story with two other stars on opposite ends of the fight (De Niro and Pacino). Like that film, “Public Enemies” has a lot of exciting and dramatic nighttime action scenes. The gunfight at the Wisconsin getaway with the guns lighting up the cold night air is most memorable. Mann more or less film this movie like someone who’s been here before. His only weakness is overuse of hand-held camera shots. In a period piece, you’d expect a filming style that would be a little more classic, framing every shot perfectly, but Mann insists on this modern technique that does sort of shatter the bubble of being in the ’30s in spots. There is definitely a sense at times that these are just modern people playing gangster dress-up — it’s not a flawless recreation of the era.

I’m unaware of the historical truths surrounding Dillinger and his cronies “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson, or even if he had a relationship with a Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), but all their roles and the facts that may or may not accompany them are of little consequence to the enjoyment of the film for those who aren’t crime history buffs. Billie is the best example of a character rendered ineffective because the movie cares little about her (despite Cotillard’s talents). She’s just there because every no-good gangster/mob guy has a girlfriend, which isn’t great, but it’s fine because it gives us another side of Dillinger and he’s what is supposed to make the film stand out.

Keep in mind that “Public Enemies” was released in July and not December and you should enjoy it — it’s an action thriller done ’30s gangster style, not an Oscar-contending biographic crime drama. It wouldn’t be unfair to expect a bit more character conflict or development for all characters and actors not named “John,” but it’s definitely appropriate summer movie fare.

4/5 Stars

“Public Enemies” (2009)
Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman, Bryan Burrough (book)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard


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