Public Enemies – Review

The masterpiece this summer was waiting for.

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Director: Michael Mann
Notable Cast:
Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum

Michael Mann has never truly been what one could call an “actor’s director.” He is more focused on telling a brilliant story then getting great performances; Mann’s never been one to be counted on to get great performances out of his actors. It’s the trait that has separated him from Martin Scorsese, the only other American director to have directed as many crime classics as Mann, as both have had casts of similar talent with Scorsese crafting the better film usually because of better performances from his cast. It’s hard to deny that notion with Public Enemies, which is a director’s film that features solid acting but tells a magnificent story in its stead.

Focusing on the end of the “Public Enemies” era of American crime, the film features two main storylines. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a folk hero to some but a bank robber who used military tactics he learned in prison to efficiently and effectively walk out with more cash than his contemporaries. Finding the woman of his dreams (Marion Cotillard) at a cocktail party, Dillinger and his crew of hoodlums are on the lamb from local and federal authorities. Dillinger mastered the art of crossing state lines, as there was no national jurisdiction or laws involving interstate commerce used against criminals in that time before Dillinger. In many ways he was the last of his kind; a bank robber who lived on the edge. Dillinger knows this and is trying to forestall the disappearance of men of his kind; the future leads only to the grave and he is at an interesting peace with his lifestyle.

Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is a top FBI agent who is the apple of the eye of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Heading up the task force to capture Dillinger, Purvis was the first of the “G-men” which Hoover developed to radically change law enforcement in the U.S. Purvis was charged with one goal: bring down Dillinger. Using what were radical techniques for the era, the FBI used science and logic-based methods of detection to solve crime more effectively. Purvis is a man stepping in shoes perhaps too big for him; he is known for his slaying of criminals “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson, amongst others, and taking down Dillinger is what made him an icon in his time.

Mann’s perspective on the proceedings is that the two are on the doorsteps of their own fates. The film focuses on a different perspective than Mann’s usual focus on criminal and cop. Public Enemies is more about the chase than the catch itself. For Dillinger the chase allows him to stay alive one more day; being able to out run, out gun and out think the local and federal authorities on his trail give him a reason to exist. He lives for that chase, the thrill after the robbery and the spoils it involves. For Purvis the chase is a means to an end. Professional success and respect is what he seems to want the most and Dillinger is the man who’ll give it to him.

Public Enemies doesn’t rely on Depp and Bale, two of the best actors working, for its drama. This is purely a director’s film in that the focus is on the story and not the characters. If it wasn’t they’d feel derivative of most significant crime films. Depp is flamboyant and owns the screen, but Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington have done better jobs in similar films so it’s not a shocker that a famous criminal could be played with such pizazz. Bale is a cop trying to do his job against a foe who gets the better of him, which isn’t much of a stretch from generic cop roles in generic crime films. What separates these solid performances from other films that were dragged down by them is that Mann is masterful in how he plots the film. We see the descent of Dillinger from his peak to the final shootouts that would leave most of his old crew dead or captured. We feel the tension and pressure Purvis is under from those above and below him. And we feel the end of an era when Dillinger finally meets his bloody end; Mann isn’t trying to do anything but tell the correct version of history and for the most part he gets it right.

What he does better than nearly any other crime film director is his action sequences. No crime film can be complete without them and Public Enemies does more with less. Using guns and equipment from the Depression, Mann has trained his actors well. Depp is surprisingly adept with a Thompson submachine gun and Bale looks like he’s been using a bolt-action rifle for years. The realism adds to the film because the real-life men were legendary for their ability to use the weapons of the time. It’s little things, like Depp loading a machine gun in the middle of a firefight without being distracted by the bullets whizzing by him; these kinds of things Mann absolutely nails and it elevates the film’s intensity to a different level. It’s about atmosphere and intensity more than acting, Mann’s niche in film, and it’s fascinating material. He’s not there to explore Dillinger’s past, or why he does the things he does.

This is a film about the end of an era and the beginning of another and Mann understands this intrinsically. It’s hard to argue against Public Enemies being the best film he’s made and it’s one of the best of 2009.


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