Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Public Enemies


Review by Eoin O’Faolain

With the summer usually filled with entertaining blockbusters that focus more on fun than anything deeper, it comes as a surprise to see this month see the release of Public Enemies, the story of infamous gangster John Dillinger. But is the film a real insight into a criminal whose reputation lasted far beyond America’s 1930’s, or just another forgettable gangster flick?

The film sees two of Hollywood’s biggest names face off against each other. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger, as we follow him for a year or so of his violent life. He is being pursued by Agent Melvin Purvis (played by Chrsitian Bale), recently assigned head of the FBI, under pressure to catch the criminal due to the FBI’s need to prove itself to gain further funding. Dillinger hooks up with moll Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) but finds himself in a changing world, in which his speciality of bank robberies is no longer the priority of the gangster underworld, while the Feds close in.

Directed by Michael Mann, the film feels like either an overlong and restrained action film, or a dramatic thriller that lacks depth. As the former, the film only succeeds in part. Mann has a habit of obsessing over the minutiae of shootouts while avoiding huge explosions or slow-motion (see Heat). One scene in particular works, in which Dillinger and his cohorts try to flee from the Feds through a forest at night. But most of the time they drag on, the clacking of tommy-guns soon wearing our patience thin. And as a drama the film completely fails, for it is unable to provide any sense of life beneath any of its characters.

Depp make a true effort to give a dramatic performance, as opposed to being one of his many one-dimensional characters, but in his attempt he conflated underperforming with not performing at all, and what we see is a rather stony face that suggests nothing. The same goes for Bale, who hasn’t been able to shed his Batman growling. He spends the film stuck with a stiff jaw and a scowl on his face. The script barely attempts to make either character sympathetic in any way. Dillinger claims he doesn’t give up his bank-robbing life because he enjoys it so much, but we never see him enjoy it. Equally, with Purvis, the point of his story is that he begins to realise the fine line between criminals and crime-busters, but we never see him feel them, and instead have to rely on a text screen at the film’s end to truly realise how FBI life affected him.
Even in Dillinger’s supposed relationship with Billie, we don’t get to see their passion for each other. Dillinger meets her, tells her who he is and that he wants her, we cut to a brief sex scene, and then suddenly she disappears for 30 minutes, appearing for a second to say he lives a dangerous life, and then she suddenly dedicates herself to him. This sparse summary of their relationship fails to justify her love for him, and she comes across as naïve if not stupid, while Dillinger just can’t melt (At one point in the film, Dillinger breaks down, but it’s far too late to save our sympathy for him). And there’s plenty of dramatic material. For example, Dillinger was a man of the public, he loved the media attention and walked about in public. Yet this is only referenced in the film, and never fully explored. Neither is his obvious dismay at being rejected by the crime bosses because his way of life involved too many risks.

The film is shot using HD cameras. It’s a brave move for a Hollywood director, because most audiences have yet to fully accept digital cinema as a valid medium (unless it’s treated to look like 35mm, such as the Star Wars prequels). It’s a noble attempt that suggests that the film is trying to provide a gritty and authentic look and genuinely provide a sense of the 1930’s. If that is the intention, then the set design lets the film down. It’s far too clean, far too nice. Dillinger walked between the rich and the poor, and while we see luscious dining rooms and marbled banks (in reality Dillinger robbed small town ones), we don’t see anything of a country still emerging from the grime and misery of its Great Depression. And considering the world economic crisis at the moment, it’s pretty essential to see that.

Public Enemies is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It thinks it’s realistic, but there’s no sense of life back then. It tries to have action, but it just isn’t invigorating enough. And it tries to be a smart drama but the dull performances prevent us from caring about what happens. And in its half-baked attempts, it falls into a black hole of cinema, aspiring to be everything and achieving nothing. 

2 / 5 stars


Review by Patrick Hodges

Gangster movies – or, to be more specific, movies set in the pre- and post-Capone era in Chicago – have been a Hollywood staple for over half a century.  Back in a time when bank robbers were glorified in the newspapers and treated like rock stars on the big screen, being a young, charming scofflaw with a brazen attitude and chiseled good looks were enough to make one a celebrity.

Public Enemies tells the story of 1930’s gangster John Dillinger, one of the premier bank robbers of the era (and assigned the honor of being “Public Enemy #1"), as well as the taskforce assigned to bring him to justice.  If you want charisma, then you probably couldn’t have made a better casting choice than Johnny Depp, who imbues Dillinger with more than enough charisma to carry the film.  On the other side of the coin is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who is given the job of leading the taskforce by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Watchmen's Billy Crudup).

The film was directed by Michael Mann, who, if you have seen Miami Vice, Collateral or the now-classic Heat, you’ll know is probably the best helmer out there for gritty crime dramas; he knows how to get in the trenches as far as getting into the characters’ heads, and there are few better than he at choreographing shootout scenes.  And in Public Enemies, there is a LOT of shooting.

However, all of those films took place in the present day, and Mann’s first stab at a historical drama, for a reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, falls a little flat.  Perhaps it was the characters; oh, sure, Depp was magnificent as Dillinger, but there were moments when his charisma crossed the line into overweening arrogance.  Maybe that’s how the real Dillinger was, I don’t know, but it made him less likeable to me.  Bale was also fine, if a little stiff, as Purvis, but I’ve come to expect that from Bale as of late.

There is also a love story in this movie, between Dillinger and a French beauty named Billie (played by La Vie en Rose Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), a poor girl who falls under Dillinger’s spell early on.  Again, the story was acted well enough to be convincing, but even if you don’t know the history behind the characters, you can pretty much figure out how it’s going to end (very few people in that line of work live to be old men, if you get my meaning).

The scenes with the most action – the robberies, the shootouts, the chase scenes, etc. – are well-realized, but everything apart from that just feels like filler.  There is little or no character development, and barely enough of a story to keep me interested.  In fact, I was bored quite a few times during the film’s nearly 2 ½- hour running time.  Dillinger robs banks, gets caught, escapes, robs some more, gets caught again, blah blah blah.

Perhaps Public Enemies could have taken a few tips from Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster film The Untouchables.  It could have been more entertaining if Dillinger could have been a little more over-the-top like Robert DeNiro’s Capone, or if Purvis could have been a little more of an optimistic Boy Scout-type like Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness.  Then maybe I would have cared a little more about the eventual outcome.  Maybe.

In short, Public Enemies may have been historically accurate (or not, I’m really the wrong guy to ask), but if it was, historical accuracy doesn’t always make for the best story.  There was enough good performances there to warrant the price of admission, but not much else.

2 ½ / 5 stars

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