Amidst a summer of disappointments that include Terminator Salvation, Wolverine and Transformers, Michael Mann looks to deliver what he does best: a thrilling crime epic. Public Enemies has all the components necessary: an excellent director, Christian Bale and Johnny Depp as bank robber John Dillinger.
Public Enemies is one of the best movies of the summer, and when all is said and done, most likely the year. A powerful performance by Depp and a thrilling onslaught of action sequences are the highlights of this true crime tale that keeps the punches coming.
The movie is about John Dillinger (Depp) first and foremost, and the emergence of what would become the FBI as it attempts to crack down on some of the most dangerous criminals in America, including Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and others. Dillinger is a man who knows what he wants and doesn't think twice about pursuing those goals, but it's these impulsive and perhaps obsessive tendencies that lead to his eventual downfall. Hot on his tale is Melvin Purvis (Bale), a star agent who is determined to bring down Dillinger once and for all.
Public Enemies is surprisingly action-packed. You never know what you're going to get from Mann, a consistent director who, more than any other directors, often blends the line between action and drama. While Miami Vice skewed way too far in the wrong direction, most of his other crime dramas, such as Collateral and Heat, are thrilling pictures that feature plenty of character development with bursts of explosive action. Public Enemies is Mann's most action-packed film yet, as it is full of bank heists, shootouts and prison breaks. The action is generally exciting or at least realistic, and some of the best suspense comes when not a single shot is fired (most notably, an escape sequence where Dillinger essentially walks out of jail past dozens of National Guardsmen).
While the action takes precedence, Mann has devised an effective portrayal of Dillinger and his strengths and weaknesses. The film isn't quite a full character study, but in hindsight the story slowly establishes why Dillinger was so good at what he did, and why he never had a chance at a long and enjoyable life. Depp turns in one of his best serious performances ever, showing that he doesn't have to be weird and creepy to be good. Depp's Dillinger is likable and charming, and yet flawed and easy to despise. He's a man who asks for a violent death without even realizing it.
Bale and Marion Cotillard also turn in excellent performances in their respective roles, as large or small as they may be. Cotillard, who recently won an Oscar for La vie en rose, is great, though even with the decent amount of screen time she receives, her character seems woefully underdeveloped. More shocking is the small role of Bale, who received equal billing with Depp; while he is instrumental in the movie, Public Enemies is not about one versus the others as we were led to believe but almost entirely about Dillinger, with Bale serving as a vehicle to provide conflict in the story.
There have been two general complaints about Public Enemies, and one of them is valid. Unlike Mann's other works, Enemies is less interested in its characters. Those expecting a 1930's version of Heat, where two great actors square off, will not get it. Other than Dillinger, Public Enemies isn't concerned about the other characters or their story arcs; it doesn't mount to a final, epic battle but rather serves a step-by-step depiction of Dillinger's downfall. As a result, Public Enemies isn't as solid as many of Mann's other works.
Even more people, critics and moviegoers alike, have complained about the use of digital photography in the film. My roommate was so distracted by the digital look of the picture - most notably a long shootout set at night in the woods - that he was unable to enjoy the movie, and he wasn't alone. But I didn't notice - or at least wasn't bothered by - the use of digital cameras. Public Enemies looks and feels like a Michael Mann movie, and there's nothing more to it than that.
While Public Enemies doesn't flow with the same strength as The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, the movie is another solid entry on Michael Mann's resume and easily one of the best movies of the summer.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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