Public Enemies (2009)

THE SCOOP
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: The Feds try to take down notorious American gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd during a booming crime wave in the 1930s.

Genre: Crime/Drama/History/Thriller
Awards: -
Runtime: 140min
Rating: NC16 for gangster violence and some language.

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IN RETROSPECT
Depp. Bale. Mann. Their names alone would draw moviegoers to the box-office. Respected filmmaker Michael Mann, the Oscar-nominated director of acclaimed films such as Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999), teams up with Christian Bale and eccentric actor Johnny Depp in a loose biopic of one of America’s most famous gangsters - John Dillinger of the 1930s. The result is Public Enemies, a stylish but imperfect drama that bears the hallmarks of Mann’s strong visual sense and commanding storytelling.

Depp plays Dillinger with cool precision. His character rarely smiles and he often gets what he wants. He is only interested in two things: robbing banks and finding a woman of his dreams. Bank robbing is second nature to Dillinger; he is so skillful that he rarely ever plans for an alternative escape route in case something goes wrong. His team of skilled criminals is loyal to him because he never makes empty promises and always stands by them.

Dillinger finds his dream woman in Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful coat-check girl who, like Dillinger, does not plan for the future. Billie warms up to him after initially suspicious of his motives. On the other side, Melvin Purvis (Bale) is a tough, resolute law enforcer whose job is to capture Dillinger. He does so, but the crafty criminal engineers yet another incredible prison escape. Purvis, however, has the upper hand because he knows that Billie could be that dangling carrot to get to Dillinger again.

In Public Enemies, Mann humanizes Dillinger to the extent that viewers see him as an anti-villain, which is how the public viewed him eight decades ago. Yes, he may rob banks and capture hostages, but he does not want customers’ money and releases his hostages immediately after his getaways. He is not out for blood; rather he wants enough dough to set himself (and his woman) up for a comfortable life. In addition, to highlight authoritative brutality during that time (and perhaps a hinted reference at today’s climate as well), Billie is subjected to physical and emotional abuse in a hopeless bid to force her to disclose information on the whereabouts of Dillinger.

Some viewers will find Mann’s shaky camera movements and seemingly poor lighting a turn-off. This is only a matter of taste. Action sequences are few and limited to conventional gunfights which are neither spectacular nor exciting. It appears that Mann is just going through the motions. After all, he is interested in Dillinger’s story more than anything else. In fact, the most tense sequence is the kind of scene many take for granted: it occurs when Dillinger secretly escapes in a police car after a prison break and is halted by a traffic light on red which seems to last forever.

By then, Dillinger has charmed his way into our conscience such that we root for him more than his would-be captors. The film’s most memorable sequence occurs late when Dillinger wanders into a mostly empty police headquarters (well, most of the law enforcers are camped outside two theaters waiting to spring a surprise attack on him after a tip-off from someone) to his bemusement. The picture ends on an emotional note but it is Mann’s excellent storytelling throughout that makes the finale almost tear-jerking. Public Enemies is short of compelling and fails to break new ground in its genre, but it is still a well-made Mann vehicle.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)


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