Public Enemies Reviews
Feb 11th 2010
January 21st 2017
Overall, very entertaining and brings Dillinger colorfully to life. Seemingly a Robin Hood of his time.
Public Enemies is so obsessed with the idea of John Dillinger that it neglects the actual person that he was. Short on characterization, Public Enemies keeps John Dillinger as a mysterious enigma; a larger-than-life legend who is represented more as an elusive ideal than any kind of human being. While this helps to contribute to the large legacy of the man, the fact that the film puts such a heavy emphasis on the fact that its central character is John Dillinger yet comes up this short on characterization is really disappointing. What's more disappointing is precisely how much the film focuses on the character without doing all that much with him, particularly considering that there is an entire world in economic depression around him which nobody seemed to pick up on. And considering that Public Enemies is such an extensively long film which moves at such a glacial pace, this can prove really frustrating. Luckily enough Johnny Depp brings one of his best performances to the film which prevents him from becoming just another star vehicle for the man and helps to transcend the shortage of characterization.
Nevertheless, Public Enemies stands out among a large crowd of crime films simply because of the rich romanticisation in the film. The emphasis Michael Mann puts on John Dillinger's bold nature through Johnny Depp's charm hypnotizes audiences into loving him, providing a perspective on the anti-establishment feeling plaguing America during The Great Depression. During the time of the story's setting this lead to media promotion of ridiculous bravado and encouraged the FBI to really declare him as "Public Enemy No. 1". This gives audiences a perspective as to precisely what built the legacy behind John Dillinger. The screenplay doesn't break down its barriers, but there is a lot of credibility in the way Public Enemies paints John Dillinger as a charming anti-hero without neglecting the sociopathic nature of his violence. And on top of that, the dialogue is very rich.
Visually, Public Enemies is a magnificent experience in the art of style. In his most stylish venture in years, Michael Mann crafts a magnificent spectacle of imagery through his use of on-location scenery and stunning cinematography. Using a brilliantly versatile collection of angles and techniques, the cinematography in Public Enemies captures every little detail with steady movement to keep the atmosphere in a state of controlled intensity. The cinematography has a very western motif to it which matches the steady flow of the narrative without dramatization faults. There is a powerful variation between use of long shots to establish story context and close-ups to provide intense focus on the characters. The movements of the camera are also firm regardless of if they are slow or swift, never reaching an extent of being too shaky. But what's most notorious is the fact that the cinematography uses top-notch high definition camera quality most of the time yet maintains a slight blur during many of the swift movements occurring during the intense scenes. All this reaches an endeavour in the way Public Enemies depicts its violence in such a raw format. Without hiding anything or going excessive, Public Enemies makes use of some brilliantly stylish shootouts in which the cinematography plays a key part in drawing in atmosphere. The sound effects boom heavy and dominate the echoes while the muzzle flares brighten up the darkened colour scheme with startling power, and the extensive use of squibs lays down a practical effect. In a world where cinema is largely dominated by the use of CGI, Michael Mann's more conservative approach to his work proves to harken back to the glorious days of raw cinematic violence in the gangster genre and stands out amid the crowd of contemporary crime films. Elliot Goldenthal helps this out with an effectively dramatic musical score which is subtle yet emotionally powerful at the correct moments.
And matching Michael Mann's eye for style with a brain for character, Johnny Depp contributes a truly brilliant spectacle of acting. You can tell within a few seconds of Johnny Depp's face being on screen that he is taking on a significantly different role in this film. It's because Public Enemies is not a Johnny Depp vehicle, it is a genuine dramatic piece. The man's such a natural charmer that his charisma is impossible to miss either way, but with no makeup to hide behind this time he has to rely on playing an actual character. He manages to get it perfectly since he grasps the charming sophistication of John Dillinger with an underlying tone of intimidation which is never made explicit. Johnny Depp conjures a real romanticisation of the iconic gangster and gets audiences rooting for him simply for his restrained nature in a world of more aggressive people. Johnny Depp proves his worth as a genuine actor in Public Enemies by playing a character that channels his natural charms without being buried beneath extensive makeup, thus giving the actor a chance to work in drama, crime and romance all within the same narrative. His performance is one of serious lasting value.
Christian Bale is a predictably powerful presence. Given that the man has a legacy for extremely intense performances, the role of Melvin Purvis seems ideal as it is able to capitalize on this. Christian Bale contributes a raw and aggressive nature to the character which emphasizes the insecure paranoia of the American government in their pursuit of John Dillinger. Marion Cotillard also lends a sympathetic supporting performance since she has a gentle spirit to her at some moments and a ferocious dramatic edge to her at others, mediating herself extremely well over the course of the story.
Public Enemies may idolize John Dillinger too much to humanize him well enough to craft an appropriately in-depth story, but the film is nevertheless a glorious testament to Michael Mann's visual brilliance in both period detail and action, as well as Johnny Depp's extremely charismatic talents.
John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a prison escapee and charismatic bank robber whose lightning raids and Robin Hood style values made him a folk hero too much of the 1930's downtrodden public.
With the cocky belief that everyone else exists exclusively because he does, Dillinger becomes the centre of gravity. However, through all his Bravado the always in control Dillinger falls obsessively in love for a half French/half Indian but completely naive cloak checker Evelyn "Billie" Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
Although Dillinger's initial demands for Billie's affections are rebuffed, his alluring pull and charming declaration of "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars... and you. What else you need to know?" eventually makes Billie his.
The pair and Dillinger's gang safely continue their escapades due to the polite protection of hostages and values to only steal the banks money aid in the public at larges' willingness to provide asylum and hinders the police's effort
When the gang's exuberant state line crossing exploits escalate them to the status of cult legends, Dillinger quickly becomes the prime target for the fledgling Bureau of Investigation headed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and its top agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).
The inclusion of sociopathic and unpredictable Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) makes Hoover's highly administrative driven bureau desperate for their apprehension. Hoover devises a plan to recruit real strong arm gun-slinging lawmen from Arizona under the guise of aiding their efforts in the pursuit to elevate the bureau into a national police force leading to the birth of the FBI.
Director Michael Mann's faithful recreation of the 1930's settings is fraught by his obsession with digital camerawork. Unlike celluloid, HD video isn't flattering or forgiving, and the abundance of superfluous details captured shows every physical and cinematic flaw.
Mann's passion and preoccupation for surface texture whilst utilising handheld cameras cerebrally over stimulates viewers. The headache of 'Shaking camera syndrome' and need to explore the 'gritty look' ultimately detracts not enhances the images which seem lost in translation in relation to the era of the piece.
Dillinger's self-created folk hero status is effortlessly recreated by Depp's graceful, cheeky and in-love-with-his-own-legend portrayal. Depp's understated and undeniable magnetism carries Christian Bales somewhat less wooden but still one-dimensional Wile E. Coyote-eskque chilling pursuer Melvin Pervis.
One of Mann's main flaws is his apparent disregard for the need of character background and exploration. Although his painstakingly thorough research for visual integrity is admirable and shooting on location at the original site of the Little Bohemia Lodge and the Crown Point jail is wonderfully authentic, his attention to the human side leaves the film lacking that true emotional connection.
Mann is highly particular about presenting particular relationship styles. Dillinger and Billie are a 'him' and 'her' not a 'them', they are never portrayed as a couple and the story is centralised around their need for each other not their love for each other. For her vulnerability she needs protection and to receive affirmation of his invincibility he needs to protect. The actors portray this tone perfectly, however to the viewer it seem a little hollow.
From the onset it looked as thought it was going to be an ensemble supporting cast including Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, David Wenham as well as a brief cameo from Clarke Gable (clipped from Manhattan Melodrama). Sadly however, Depp and Bale have no connection and their onscreen hero and villain personas share very little screen time.
One great scene that due to its content must be one of those fictional Hollywood gems finds Dillinger casually strolling into the Bureau's half empty Anti-Dillinger office and brazenly wonders around looking at pinned up photo's and documents about his fallen and apprehended gang members, he even has the galls to ask a cop who just won the baseball game on the radio.
Verdict: For all his research efforts, Mann's most recent time piece lacks both visual and historical cohesion. This film is carried squarely on the back of its actors and its time frame, however with that in mind, it works. The overconfident swaggering Dillinger takes audiences hostage and commands complete attention and with Depp holding the gun, I'm in.
Published: The Queanbeyan Age
Date of Publication: 07/08/2009