Clint’s Review : Public Enemies


As anyone that’s a regular barbecuer will attest to, leave a hot plate of food uncovered on an outside table for too long, and it’s only going to draw all kinds of insalubrious sprinkle.

Michael Mann’s latest dish has been left overnight.

What once might’ve been an incredibly tasty meal is now a soiled, stiff mess.

From the outset, director Mann’s “Public Enemies” would seem to have all the vital ingredients for a beaut blockbuster : Johnny Depp as 30s gangster John Dillinger, Christian Bale as Dillinger’s adversary, agent Melvin Purvis, a plush and pricey production design, a backdrop straight out of old Hollywood, and, of course, Mann – one of today’s most prolific and interesting filmmakers…. Or at least he was up until a couple of years back.

In the 80s and 90s, Mann could do no wrong. His beautifully shot, emotion-enriched action fare – be it TVs “Miami Vice” or the films “Manhunter” or Pacino/DeNiro hit “Heat” – are considered classics now. While filmmakers like George P.Cosmatos and Peter Hyams would serve up shlocky commercial action pics, Mann would give audiences more intelligent, intense and gripping rides. He seemed to be able to perfectly blend the worlds of the popcorn action pic and the talky arthouse drama.

But then, and much like another former great, George Lucas, Mann started to stray. Starting with “Miami Vice” (some may say “Ali”)his films suddenly seemed to be less driven by character, and more by creation. His main focus seemed to be on stretching a film’s duration as long as lawfully possible, packing a barrage of bullets into near every scene, and toying with different film stock. And it’s that last fascination of his that’s the main undoing of “Public Enemies”.

Shot completely on shaky-cam digital, the $80 million dollar movie looks like, well, a no-frills adaptation of a Michael Mann movie – filmed by college students. From the moment the Universal logo disappears, and the film begins, its clear Mann has made the wrong choice. As any “Untouchables” (1987) fan knows, a Chicago-centric Gangster piece needs to be shot on glorious film – by shooting it on so-sharp-you-feel-like-you’re-there digital, we’re automatically taken out of the picture. And I’m sure Depp and Bale didn’t appreciate having those cameras jammed up their nose for the duration of the shoot either. “Enemies” doesn’t look so much like a movie, as it does a cheap EPK for a theme park back lot. It’s a big put-off.

Based on Bryan Burrough’s book, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, this ostensibly romanticised biopic fixes largely on the final days of Dillinger (Johnny Depp) – a charismatic bank robber who took on somewhat of a ‘Robin Hood’ persona – whose reign comes to an abrupt end when J Edgar Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) fledgling FBI and its top agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), beef up the hunt. Inadvertently caught up in it all is Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), Dillinger’s girlfriend.

If the script (by Mann, Ronan Bennett & Ann Biderman) had been stronger, and the cast had had more to do than just crank and re-crank Tommy Guns, maybe Mann’s choice of camera might’ve been less intrusive? Because despite some serviceable performances by Depp (power to the guy though – hardly looks a day older here than he did in his “21 Jump Street” days in the 80s), Bale (two disappointments in the one year for Bale – watch his stock fall!), and an all-star support cast (Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, James Russo, Rory Cochrane, Shawn Hatosy, Emilie de Ravin, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang, Matt Craven, Leelee Sobieski and, if you look closely, Australia’s David Wenham, seem happy just to be there – despite most of them not staying on screen any longer than 15 minutes), there’s nothing here to really draw the audience in. You don’t give two hoots about Dillinger and his beloved Billie, nor do you care who wins or loses. And once you’ve seen one gun-fight on the Chicago streets, you’ve seen them all.

One can appreciate that because this is a film (albeit one that runs over 140 minutes!) Mann had to cherry pick moments from Dillinger’s life to showcase, but for Christ’s sake, surely he could’ve told us a bit more about the film’s central characters than he does – all he tells us is Dillinger is a gangster-with-a-heart, Purvis is a-fed-with-a-heart, and Billie is, for some unexplained reason, smitten with the cocky crook.  Um, and when do we actually get to see Dillinger and his team pull off their legendary heists, Mike? Surely that ten-minute sequence near the film’s beginning wasn’t the only thing that put him on the most-wanted list… was it!?

The whole thing just feels flat, lifeless and careless.

“Public Enemies”, though meekly entertaining, shoots more blanks than Tom Cruise at a Scientologist’s Orgy.

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Caffeinated Clint
Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole. Loves David Lynch, David Fincher... actually, any filmmaker by the name of David.