The Good: Moments of acting and plot
The Bad: Predictable plot, Unlikable characters, Direction
The Basics: In a strikingly average (at best) film, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale face off as Dillinger and Purvis in the dull crime drama Public Enemies.
It was less than halfway through Public Enemies when I realized that writers Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman, and Michael Mann (who directed the film) had completely failed with the film because I found myself not caring at all who would live or die in the film. This is a pretty critical flaw in a film involving gangsters; one ought to either find themselves secretly rooting for the criminal - with whom they have found a basis for empathy - or eagerly awaiting for the law to prevail and social order to be maintained. It is the death knell of such films to have viewers not care either way. But with the two hour twenty minute adaptation of the Bryan Burrough's history is anything but engaging and clever. Even on the big screen, it is a surprisingly dull film.
As is my usual caveat for films based upon books, having not read the book upon which this is based, I am not evaluating how well this translates the book to the big screen. Nor, because this is based upon a historical text, am I evaluating how well the film stacks up against reality. In fact, I've no knowledge of the real story of John Dillinger, so I came to Public Enemies remarkably free of prejudice. I also went into this having seen no previews; I had only seen the standee of Johnny Depp in the movie theater, noted that Christian Bale was in the film, too and made the crack to my partner, "Do you suppose they got the 'Moody Man Two-for-one Special?'" Sadly, this is about the depth and breadth of the acting in Public Enemies.
In 1933, as the Great Depression trudges into its fourth year, John Dillinger has made a career for himself as a bank robber in the Midwest. Dillinger makes good on a promise to some prison friends of his in Michigan City, Indiana, by springing them from the state penitentiary there. After fleeing to the safe haven of Chicago, Dillinger meets a coatcheck woman - Billie Frechette - and he falls in love. Elsewhere, FBI agent Melvin Purvis literally hunts down gangster Pretty Boy Floyd and his actions in not-quite-apprehending him earn him the notice of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover immediately assigns Purvis to Chicago to head the Dillinger Squad.
As Dillinger and his henchmen rob banks and elude Purvis, Purvis tries to tighten the net around Dillinger using scientific methodology. When his generally-appropriate techniques fail to net Dillinger - or his more dimwitted associates - Purvis requests aid through Hoover of more thuggish law enforcement officers. As Purvis leads his task force, he allows others to make more brutal decisions which put Dillinger and organized crime on the run.
Public Enemies is arguably one of those films which seeks to ask the tough questions in the viewer's mind about what levels of force are appropriate and who we become in hunting down our criminals, but the fundamental problem is that there is almost nothing within the film which we haven't seen before. Having survived a time when known associates of people suspected of crimes have been deprived their civil liberties, there is little surprising or audacious in Public Enemies and the rougher techniques Purvis's associates utilize. More than that, their brutal tactics - while making viewers empathetic toward Billie - seldom make the viewer care more about Dillinger. After all, unlike the real-life "suspects" in contemporary criminal investigations, in Public Enemies, there is ample evidence illustrated on-screen that Dillinger and his associates kill when necessary.
And beyond that, this is a pretty basic law-and-order versus the criminal where early on the woman is established as the linchpin. Dillinger's weak spot is always Billie and throughout the film, the viewer tends to find themself waiting for the inevitable, more than expecting this to be a film that defies our expectations. Unfortunately for us, the wait is still a long one.
Director Michael Mann subjects the viewer to multiple bank robberies which become less-smooth operations as Dillinger is compelled to work with different people. The problem is in the form; he frames them similarly from the entrance of the antagonists through the escape in and on cars down long roads. One knows it's a pretty mediocre movie one is watching when they start pulling the performers out of the film, as I found myself doing too frequently with notes to myself like, "It's nice to see Emile de Ravin in something new!," "Is that Giovanni Ribisi?" (it was, by the by, in what amounts to little more than a cameo as a fellow robber, Alvin Karpis, in a role very different to his Friends persona that I've seen him as lately), or "Why does that guy playing Hoover seem so familiar?" (The answer to the last one is that it is Billy Crudup playing Hoover and he is decked out to look and act pretty much like his pre-transformation character from Watchmen, reviewed here!) So what viewers have not seen elsewhere they see multiple times within Public Enemies.
As well, when the camerawork is not frenetic and busy, it is boring. Mann tries to mimic the conditions of the time fairly frequently by lighting shots with flares and having handheld cameras at about neck level in crowds to shake things up. These shots - and one black and white shot that is just grainy enough to make viewers believe it is archived footage of Dillinger's prison transfer plane landing - come amidst long, steady shots of courtrooms and bedroom scenes, which lose any energy Mann might have created in the other shots. The only style shots that actually seem to work are a pair of shots - one of Billie, one of Purvis - shot at ridiculously low angles with them looking down which look like they might have been shot using a laptop computer's camera. Mann gets no real style points for Public Enemies.
In fact, Mann is strangely fearful as a director of making a film with real impact with this movie. There is surprisingly little gore to the gun battles - and there are a slew throughout the film -, the language is tame and the film's lone sex scene lacks nudity. I'm not saying that the movie would be better with more gore or some t&a, but Mann creates a film that feels more like a PG-13 gangster drama than the "R" it received. I suspect this is more because no one under thirteen could sit through the film without being bored more than actually warranting the "R" rating.
Of course, the real issue for me more than the style and MPAA rating comes in the form of the plot, character and acting issues. The plot is entirely predictable, the characters are either obvious (Dillinger), unlikable (Baby Face Nelson), or bland (Purvis, Billie). Dillinger and Purvis are set up more as types than actual characters in the film and neither one makes the viewer care about them or the outcome of their series of cat and mouse hunts.
Part of the problem here is in the acting. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale lead the cast as Dillinger and Purvis, respectively. Depp's performance is strikingly familiar; he plays Dillinger almost like he played George Jung in Blow (reviewed here!). Similarly, Bale plays Purvis with the same unsmiling moodiness he brought to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight (reviewed here!). Depp and Bale are both the function of adequate casting here more than anything resembling inspired acting. We've seen performances like these from both men before and here they give us nothing new. This is well within the expected range of both actors and as a result, the film falls flat on the acting front. I'm not saying Michael Cera ought to have been cast as Dillinger, but if he had and he'd managed to pull it off, it would have illustrated inspired use of an actor. Bale and Depp in Public Enemies calls to mind a snarky remark from the Just Shoot Me episode "King Lear Jet" wherein (in response to a photographer bragging about a picture he took of a supermodel) a character notes, "You took a picture of one of the hottest women in the world and somehow made her look beautiful. What's your secret - are you using some kind of film?" What we see from both men is obvious for their talents and is less an asset to the film than one might think.
The only one who leaps off the screen - and she does it by being more subtle than over-the-top - is actress Marion Cotillard as Billie. Cotillard oozes sexuality without ever being in-your-face with it. She has a delivery that is striking and makes her character's sense of force stick. It's too bad so much of the film passes without her getting a scene and when she does, the scenes are often marred by predictable elements, like a slap that fails to be delivered to her by the timely arrival of more upright law officers.
At the end of the day, though, Public Enemies deserves its criticism for being boring. It is and when one acknowledges that, there is truly little more to write.
For other works with Marion Cotillard, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight Rises
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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