Public Enemies


Director – Michael Mann

Writers – Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, Ann Biderman

Starring – Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marrion Cotillard


Set in the USA at the time of the Great Depression, Public Enemies follows folk hero John Dillinger (Depp) and his band of merry men as they perform lightning raids of banks and slip in and out of jail with ease (the odd extra takes a bullet now and then, but that’s by the by). Naturally this activity grabs the attention of J Edgar Hoover and his buddy Melvin Purvis (Bale), who just so happens to be the newly formed FBI’s top agent. They set out to capture Dillinger and make him America’s first Public Enemy Number One. Basically its Heat set in the 30’s.


Despite just likening the plot of Public Enemies to Heat, there is a great deal that it falls short of in comparison to its far superior predecessor. With so many issues to speak of, I’m going to break it down in to the main three: Characters, Action and Visuals (and might sprinkle some more in between as a treat).

Whilst not being fanatical about America’s Great Depression and not having a great deal of knowledge of the personality of John Dillinger, I did go in to the movie with the expectation that Johnny Depp would inject a dose of charisma to his folk hero character and bring him alive. To my dismay, no such thing happened. In fact there was very little time to get to know the man at all, despite spending pretty much the entire film with him. Whilst Mann was cramming dozens of events and characters in to this 2 hour 20 minute suitcase, it would appear he forgot about his main man, who somehow (even with the Depp/Dillinger combo) manages to get washed up with the rest of the mess and who quite frankly I did not care about. Other character miscues include Melvin Purvis on two counts: 1 Casting Bale to play him; 2 Giving him about 4 lines and minutes of screen time (of which Bale manages to ruin anyway). And finally more restricted screen time for Marrion Cotillard’s character Billie Frechette, one of the most interesting and undoubtedly stunning characters in the film. So with all this lack of screen time for the characters, what is actually on the screen – action?


Possibly a by-product of the visuals (which I’ll get to in a bit), the action in Public Enemies is disorienting and downright dull. This is especially highlighted in the shootout in a forest cabin towards the end of the film. Windows are smashed, guns are fired and people run around. That’s about all that you are sure of in this scene, possibly the climax and certainly the most highlighted gun fight in the film is absolutely uncinematic. You might be thinking that disorienting is realistic for a gunfight and I’ll give you that, but dull it is not. The editing was probably the main contributor to this, but also no tactical moves are made in the gunfight it is simply: hide, shoot, run and get away. This problem litters the movie.

Like his previous two movies: Collateral (good) and Miami Vice (bad), Michael Mann decided to shoot Public Enemies in digital format. Obviously he thinks that is something to this medium and with the a fore mentioned previous two movies he might have had something going for him. However, in the case of Public Enemies the digital format just didn’t work. Set in the 30’s (or around then), the typical visual aesthetic requires more grain than Ronan mill, whereas the eyewateringly crisp visuals presented before us make this production look like nothing more than a production. Mann’s reasoning for this was that he wanted to show this era in clear vision; as if you are there. Thanks for trying Michael, now we know it just doesn’t work.


To finish the review on a high note, there is an individual scene that really stood out for me. Dillinger just manages to escape jail and is in the getaway car at a set of red traffic lights with unknowing police all around him. The emotional angst and tension builds up to an almost unbearable crescendo before the lights turn green, a scene that makes the rest of the film all the more disappointing, because it showcases Mann’s ability as a director.

To sum up – A huge disappointment. With a solid premise and cast, Public Enemies was let down in so many ways not least of all the characters, action and visuals.

Verdict – Do what you can to avoid it.


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